“On and on the rain will fall like tears from a star, like tears from a star,
On and on the rain will say how fragile we are, how fragile we are…”
Gordon “Sting” Sumner, from the song “Fragile”
There’s a reason why the NFL rakes in over $18 billion annually as the most profitable sports league in the world, and that’s because it reflects the pinnacle of human aspirations: the desire to be Invincible. And while all athletics project a sense of physical dominance, football brings a bit more to the table; football players are not only fit, but they are blazingly fast, exceptionally strong and artistically coordinated. A good NFL game conjures up the grace and beauty of ballet, framed within an epic clash of titan demigods, set to the pace of a track meet. Beauty merges with beastly, and in a spectacle of massive power and force football allows for a conflict that gets conducted at blinding speed, with a desired outcome that one team might emerge as the unconquered collection of heroes.
But despite our flirtations with the beguiling notion of being unconquerable, every once in a while a moment like last Monday night reminds us of Sting’s poignant lyrics, “…how fragile we are.”
When we watched young Damar Hamlin collapse on that football field, all of our illusions of invincibility fell with him. His finely tuned physique, fueled by a champion’s will to dominate and prevail, yielded to the demands of the reality of what it means to be human. The fact is, that though we are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), we are also ineluctably vulnerable. We have bones that can break, flesh that tears easily, fluids that leak, and feelings that fracture – how fragile we are, indeed!
This does not sit well with us. In a world of thorns and rocky roads, storms and pernicious, invisible pathogens (…uh, COVID, anyone?), we do not like being reminded of the fact that we are altogether fragile, always at risk. We rail against being vulnerable, and the way that we spend our money shows it! It’s with serious intentionality that we spend billions of dollars on health care and defense (our two leading non-revenue generating budgetary expenditures); it’s because we dread being at risk! We armor up; with multi-vitamins and prophylactic supplements, and with cruise missiles and stealth bombers, we symbolically flex in the face of danger, intent on showing ourselves to be strong – invincible even!
Showing weakness is anathema for us; our posture is to demonstrate a level of unquestioned invincibility. We are not content to simply appear competent in life; but as General Colin Powell framed set forth in his approach to the Gulf War, our goal is to demonstrate the capacity to produce victory through “shock and awe”! We don’t only want to win, we want to emerge as indisputable conquerors, invincible and unbreakable.
Professional football has become a perfect microcosm for this mindset. Armored men take to the field, prepared to use force and physicality to prevail and emerge victorious. Human bodies, minds – and sometimes even relationships – are sacrificed on the altars of our illusions of invincible grandeur. Faustian deals are made to become bigger, faster, and stronger; with the ultimate goal being to become unconquerable.
When you think about it, it’s almost amusing how a child’s game has taken on the task of being our national proxy for our desire to demonstrate invincibility. Football is just a game, but our culture has elevated it to a sort of psycho/emotional existential struggle to establish our dominance. This “game” is now completely couched in the language of war; the other team is “the enemy,” and we are going to deploy our “weapons” to “destroy” them. People crowd into stadiums, yelling with bloodlust in their voices in support of their “warriors” who vicariously represent them on fields of “battle.”
But when a 24-year-old’s body falls to the earth, sadly we are reminded that we are NOT invincible, we are but human. We are frail; despite our grand ambitions, we remain breakable and vulnerable to damage. We are fragile, and we ought to bear the stenciled message “handle with care” on our souls.
And how much better might we be if we dealt with one another based upon this knowledge, rather than continuing to confront one another through our illusory lenses of possible invincibility? Think of the pain that we might be spared, the anguish that we might banish; the wars that we would avoid, and the communities that might be built.
According to one religious tradition, the story of original sin begins with a seductive lie, offering invincibility to a naïve couple. According to the ancient text, a slick-talking snake drew Adam and Eve in with this promise: “You will be like God…” The idea of being godlike – above need, beyond the reach of injury; omnipotent and all-knowing – got them to sign on the dotted line, and we’ve been buying the lie ever since.
But despite our best efforts to suspend our disbelief about the limits of our humanity, we remain fragile. And maybe the lesson that we can learn from Damar Hamlin’s tragic near-death experience is that sometimes the contesting and posturing, and shouting and jousting, needs to simply stop – so that we can focus on ways to restore our fractured, fragile humanity.
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Written by: Nick Taliaferro
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