Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sending Rain On The Just And The Unjust

Scripture, that source of ancient wisdom and literary richness, reminds us that "God sends rain upon the just and the unjust." (Gospel according to Matthew, 5:45) We all live on this planet and share its land. People of every race, language, and way of life are thrown into this crazy, mixed-up world and are forced to make sense of the particular path they've been given. We all face circumstances that are unique to our corners of the world and the families to which we're born. We come at life from 6.4 billion (and growing) different angles. Our stories - while sharing the same fundamental tensions - manifest those tensions in different forms and fashions.

This is at once the beauty and the sadness of life, its sweet poignancy and its aching incompleteness. Hope and despair are bound up in the yawning differences between and among various groups of people. In our best moments as human beings, we feel a shared unity which stretches across the gaps; in our most difficult moments, we feel we will never be able to make common cause with large segments of our fellow-travelers on this planet.

These fascinating yet wrenching aspects of the human condition were very much on display today, September 11, 2010. They surfaced most powerfully in America's remembrance of the day nine years ago when our sense of life was permanently altered; they emerged most personally for me when a riveting high-stakes tennis match broke the way I hoped it wouldn't.

It is one of life's great ironies that the ultimately important and the fundamentally trivial can both teach the same lesson, with the trivial entity often being the more effective teacher because the space in which it conveys its lessons is safer and happier. Tough truths aren't as threatening to the soul or the ego when they surround a little yellow pill that's being whacked, as opposed to an atrocity in which roughly 3,000 people lost their lives, and in which hundreds of thousands more were wrenched from a peaceful internal life for the rest of their sojourns on earth.

It was so strange to contemplate, as I discharged my duties at work on Saturday yet monitored my Twitter feed, the multiple cross-currents of a very emotional day. Keeping up with tennis tweets from the Roger Federer-Novak Djokovic U.S. Open men's semifinal was exhausting enough, but as the day wore on, I also noticed some comments about the ways in which various people around the world respond to acts of violence in their own land.

Americans remember 9/11/2001. Other peoples from other nations with different ethnicities and cultures recall other dates from their past. All of us - depending on where we were born and how we grew up - assign different levels of meaning to the course of human events. Depending on our circumstances and our parents, plus other factors not our choosing, we latch onto particular moments and points of passage as central to our identity and the values we seek to promote. The great majority of human beings all sincerely want the same things, but the points of emphasis we place on certain groups, methods, aims, and ideals are always creating friction in our common attempt to come together. The perplexing yet undeniable truth of the matter is that this friction is at once necessary and painful. We aren't all the same and were not meant to be the same. Yet, from our differences, a respect for our commonality is supposed to be fostered. Scripture once again offers us a glimpse of this, the peaceable kingdom, in which "the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat." Just and unjust - those whom we like, and those whom we've never cared for; those who turn us on and those who turn us off - are all under the same sky and made part of the fullness of creation.

No life is more important (or less) depending on its ethnicity or any of its other circumstances. This is not to say that there aren't moral dilemmas or questions in human life, as messy situations arise. The act of stressing the equality of all lives is not meant to ignore certain moral questions; rather, it is intended to be a fundamental statement of value... value which is not contingent upon isolated scenarios or precise, multifaceted hypotheticals. All life is valuable, and so it becomes important to see the plight of a victim when you are free. Conversely but no less necessarily, it is essential to embrace the joy of a flourishing human person while you live in chains. The joy of a just-married couple should not produce resentment in the still-single person with few prospects for a life partner. Yet, the attainment of prosperity for a household should not lead it to forget and neglect tending to the difficulties of people in need.

When life stretches in certain directions, the place in which we emotionally reside should be acutely connected to life on the other side of the spectrum, the other end of the pole. Moments of fullness should give rise to an awareness of the many who are empty; moments of emptiness should - for the spiritually mature - make us grateful that others are filled with nourishment. This is the wisdom of the ages. This is the teaching of Jesus, the one who taught that "the first shall be last and the last shall be first," and that "the one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

Plainly put, these thoughts and the values which underlie them are very much at the core of what it means to remember 9/11 prayerfully as a citizen of the world. These values are also at the heart of what it means for a fan of Roger Federer to be gracious in acknowledging the beauty and transcendence of Novak Djokovic's achievement on Saturday afternoon in Flushing Meadows, New York.

For me, the knowledge of how blessed and prosperous a life I've had in America has made me mindful of the dire poverty so many people face around the world. The horror of 9/11 made me realize what it must be like to live in fear of terrorism all the time, such as an Israeli citizen in Tel Aviv or a resident of Baghdad who can't know where the next suicide bombing will come from. 9/11 showed me what I lost (a sense of innocence and comfort), but it also showed me what I must never lose (a core integrity and a way of nonviolence in dealing with all manner of human problems). 9/11 felt so personal because America was brought in touch with an evil that had previously visited other shores. Yet, that personal wound only magnified the hurts other peoples and nations have been absorbing much longer than America has in its (relatively brief) 234-year (post-Declaration of Independence) history.

Such is the paradoxical nature of life in its weightiest dimensions.

And then there is the not-so-consequential realm of tennis.

For so long, Roger Federer - my favorite professional athlete of all time - has won the kinds of matches he played on Saturday (a match I didn't get to see, but a match that has played out before). He pulled out five-setters at the 2004 and 2008 U.S. Opens en route to championships. He won a five-setter over Juan Martin del Potro en route to his history-making win at the 2009 French Open, just days after escaping Tommy Haas in another five-setter. Federer danced out of five-set trouble against Haas and Nikolay Davydenko in the 2006 Australian Open and versus Tomas Berdych at the 2009 Australian. True, it's technically more accurate to say that Federer has excelled in grinding four-setters rather than five-setters at majors, but the bottom-line point is that, yes, Federer has usually wriggled free from trouble on so many occasions, setting a standard of high and entrenched expectations.

Saturday, Federer did not escape the clutches of a man who allowed the Swiss to pull multiple Houdinis over the years, especially that the very U.S. Open being contested in the Big Apple. In each of the last three years, Federer outlasted Novak Djokovic in a late-stage Open match, but this time, the Serbian stalwart didn't blink in the heat of battle. Two saved match points - one of them on an 11-stroke rally - carried Djokovic to 5-all in the fifth set, an eventual break of Federer's serve, and a 7-5-in-the-fifth triumph which defied recent U.S. Open history. This time, Djokovic didn't wilt after falling behind Federer. This time, the level of belief which wavered in the Serb's past was sustained from start to finish. It was - though I never saw it live - an evidently glorious moment in which a young person of 23 years grew up before the world's eyes... and in the eyes of a peer who used to look down on him, but now respects him as a man in full.

We don't see odd displays of behavior from Novak Djokovic anymore. He used to think - much like an aggrieved party in an international dispute - that everyone was against him and that he needed to maintain a bunker mentality. In the past 18 months or so, however, Djokovic has shed his family's more strident qualities and become a consistent gentleman who has nothing but warm smiles and genuine congratulations for Federer and the rest of his competitors on the ATP Tour. It is not an idle coincidence that Djokovic has become a more consistent player this year, and that he now finds himself in his second U.S. Open final after having played the most remarkable five-set match of his life (his most remarkable three-setter being the 2009 Madrid semifinal against Rafael Nadal).

Here I was, wanting Federer to reach his seventh U.S. Open final so badly. Here I was, wanting with uncommon intensity to see the Swiss meet Nadal in the final. I wanted Federer to be able to become the first man in human history to reach seven straight men's singles finals at two different majors (did any of you know that?). I wanted Federer to join Nadal as one of the only two men to contest all four major finals. I wanted these distinctions so badly for my favorite professional competitor.

And yet, walking into the midst of these hopes, Novak Djokovic played the kind of match that will make him smile with fondness - with a rich and lasting satisfaction emblazoned in the memory - for the rest of his life on earth.

Just when I wanted one form of beauty and enrichment for myself and for the man I so ardently support, another form of beauty emerged from a rival who had so rarely sipped from the nectar of ultimate joy against Roger Federer.

On 9/11, perhaps the task was made easier, but I am reminded that we should be at our best selves and maintain the best and noblest aspirations each and every day of our lives, not just some. On this 9/11 anniversary, it was somehow easier to not only concede, but celebrate, Novak Djokovic's day in the sun. The rain fell on Roger Federer, who had unjustly denied Djokovic (as he has so many others) a great many days in the bright sunlight of glory.

I began this day with the hurts of 9/11 and the still-visible divisions it has sewn in the human family across the continents and oceans. I ended the day deprived of Federer's "double-seven-final" achievement at majors plus his seminal linkage with Nadal in Grand Slam finals. Yet, I find myself moved to celebrate Novak Djokovic's breakthrough moment, a moment which doubles as a peak experience for his long-suffering fans who held out minimal hopes when this semifinal pairing was officially established.

Somehow, letting go of the unavoidable "what-ifs" of two match points lost... and of a dream moment denied when it was so close to fruition.... feels just right.

For once, the heavens kissed the just challenger who finally climbed the mountain, not on the heavy favorite I've cheered (the only heavy favorite I've ever rooted for in my adult life) since 2004.

I have learned to see life from the viewpoint on the other side of the table, the viewpoint of the nation/culture/athlete/fan base that has so often tasted bitterness more than joy.

That makes me sleep peacefully on 9/11 instead of lamenting Roger Federer's near-miss, a miss that - a few years ago - might have kept me up until 1 a.m. without any comfort in my heart.

Human beings are strange creatures. So is the sense of perspective which weaves its way through national memorials and tennis matches, and somehow knits them all together.

The same spirit which moves me to wish for peace in every land is the spirit which enables me to fully and wholeheartedly congratulate the devoted fans of Novak Djokovic, and to allow those sentiments to dominate this day instead of other, darker human impulses.

My wish for you is that you might find the spirit which looks at the unfortunate other when you're flying high, and which celebrates the fortunate other when you're brought low.

Peace and blessings to you all.