Wednesday, March 08, 2006

"Meet Mrs. Bundren"

Kirby Puckett’s death should make us consider the idea of identity, narrative, and reality. 99% of the stories we hear about Puckett are overwhelmingly positive. Not only was he a great baseball player, but most stories indicate that he was a great man, a great friend, a man truly concerned for others. For most of us, especially in Minnesota, that is enough. But for some, that 1% of darkness becomes the major factor in considering the meaning of Puckett. I don’t feel that 1% taints Puckett’s legacy. In fact, it can be added to his narrative; Puckett was not a saint, but a human being. He had problems, he made mistakes—and yet he was still able to inspire nearly everybody he came in contact with.

So who is Puckett? Is he the bubbly, smiling, energetic ballplayer who inspired a franchise and a state for over a decade? Or is the overweight retired player with a host of personal issues and a shadow hanging over him? The truth is, he is both. Identity is not a stable thing—we change, we behave differently in different situations, and it is our desire to create a coherent narrative that makes us attempt to create a coherent identity. But none of us have a coherent identity.

Then again, it’s easier to ignore, or explain away, or minimize, the darkness of Puckett. That’s not always the case; no matter what OJ Simpson does, he’ll be defined by the dark spots of his life.

We can expand these considerations out in two directions.

First, how do we make sense of sports? Sports contain a lot of raw “text,” but most of a sport is understood by the way we make sense of that text. And sometimes, in an effort to create a coherent narrative, we ignore Let us illustrate with an example of my least favorite athlete of all-time. There’s a clear narrative for Brett Favre, and most commentators are loathe to contradict it. It seems football writers and broadcasters have made a unanimous agreement to never place “Favre” and “Vicodin” in the same sentence. And even though Favre has been wavering on retirement for years (possibly to the detriment of his team), this cannot be used to contradict our understanding that Favre loves the game so much, he’d play it for free. Even his in-game mistakes are explained away to fit his narrative. Favre throws a team-crippling interception into double-coverage in the endzone; well, that’s because he’s a “gunslinger.” Favre throws an underhand pass well past the line of scrimmage to avoid taking a hit; well, that’s just proof how much fun Favre has playing the game. Our narrative distorts reality. A narrative is necessary to understand the world we live in; we have a desire for meaning. But should that narrative be created to the detriment of understanding truth?

Second, how do we make sense of our own lives?

Look at pictures of your grandfather from different points in his life. Is he the child, a member of a family? Is he the young man wearing a uniform? Is he the middle-aged father surrounded by his family? Is he the person doing a certain job? Is he the old man retired and resting and wrinkled? The bedridden man in the nursing home?

Look at yourself. Are you the person you act like around your peers? Your parents? Your grandparents? Your employers? Your church members? Kids? On the internet? Your identity is not stable; you adapt your “self” to fit certain roles for certain situations.

So how does one make sense of one’s life? Freud suggests that the end is what gives meaning to the whole; it is only in death that a proper narrative can be made for a person. Perhaps this is true; it’s difficult to define the meaning of a work of literature until we know how it ends, so how do we define the meaning of a life until it is complete?

So who am I? And who are you? And does it matter?

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