Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Tom, Time, and the Tyranny of Perfection

I’m finally ready for Tom Brady again. Are you? We watched as he was doubted at points during the second-to-most-recent NFL season—during which he was thirty-nine years old—only to come back and win the Super Bowl. We watched as he was lauded last season—at forty—only to lose the Super Bowl. We’ve listened to sports talk radio wonder how long he can play, how long he can be good, how long, how long, how long. I needed a break. How long, Oh Lord (Psalm 40), must we listen to stories about Tom Brady?

It’s March, and I guess I’m ready again. The first thing I read that got me interested in Brady again was this article from the website FiveThirtyEight about Brady’s “TB12” method (subtitle: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance) which reads like one of those 20/20 exposes of Benny Hinn’s ministry. You know, the ones where they catch, with hidden cameras, Hinn’s minions pre-placing empty wheelchairs and discover that his own ministry is buying thousands and thousands of copies of his book. Brady’s TB12 book, according to the piece, reads as more of an advertisement for a set of products (that he sells) than as honest-though-scientifically-suspect advice for achieving your best.

His new (actually several months old, but like I said, I’m only just now ready for Brady again) Facebook show “Tom vs. Time” has very much the same ring to it. Tellingly, at the very beginning of the first episode, Brady goes into a cupboard of scrapbooks and pulls one out at random. It’s from 2007, the year the previously undefeated Patriots lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl. He mumbles something about how that wasn’t a very happy ending and puts the book back. He grabs 2015, which ended in a Super Bowl win over the Falcons. Cue the highlight reel, and we’re back in Benny Hinn land. 2007 doesn’t fit the narrative: Tom Brady is a winner, and he wants you to be one, too.

Oh, and he just happens to have a couple products for sale that might help you get there.

Aside from the shopworn hucksterism—which is as old as snake oil and Uncle Rufus’ Old-Fashioned Family Recipe Cure-All Tonic—the most interesting thing about “Tom vs. Time” is the un-self-consciously ironic nature of the whole enterprise. The title, of course, is the most obvious example, but they don’t run away from the idea. They play audio of talk radio hosts proclaiming that “Father Time is undefeated” and have Brady himself saying that, after eighteen years in the league, and all the practice and film sessions and input and coaching that have come with those years, he really should be perfect by now. He’s not kidding.

I’ve talked before (though perhaps elsewhere?) about my brief high school high jumping career, and the painful existential truth of any high jump competition: the bar always wins. In the high jump, the person who wins the competition is simply the person who loses last. The judges just keep moving the bar up, and up, and up, until the last competitor knocks it down three times. The high jump bar is undefeated, just like Father Time. Tom versus time is a contest in which the outcome is predetermined. No amount of pseudo-science (heck, no amount of real science) is going to give Tom Brady this victory. Martin Luther said that the quest for glory—a quest that Tom Brady admits eagerly and repeatedly that he is on—can never be satisfied; it must be extinguished. There is no peace, apparently, even in Super Bowl victories…Brady laments his imperfections even as the camera catches a fan in the stand holding up a poster of Brady with the legend G.O.A.T. (“Greatest of All Time”) under his picture. Brady needs to give up, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen…at least not of his own volition. After all, the man is starring in a show called “Tom vs. Time.”

One of the first sentences Brady speaks in the series is, “If you want to compete with me, you better be ready to give up your life, because I am going to give up mine.” The tragedy of Tom Brady is that he is giving up his life even now. Sure, Gisele and the kids make a pretty family for Facebook’s cameras, but Brady’s quest is an onerous one. “If you choose something,” he says as he walks across his sun-dappled backyard, “you’re not choosing something else.” Fittingly, though sadly, he’s walking away from his family as he says it.

What Brady is seeking so stringently is not actually victory, or greatness, or longevity, or acclaim. Though he doesn’t know it, he’s seeking forgiveness. Forgiveness for the mistakes he’s made in games, for the times he’s fallen short, for the times he’s chosen football over family. But he’s walking down a road that cannot—by definition—end in forgiveness, because forgiveness is not righteousness (however one defines it) achieved. Forgiveness is righteousness received.

There’s an old African-American spiritual I couldn’t get out of my head while watching “Tom vs. Time”: Peace Like a River. As I watched, I found myself wanting peace for Tom Brady. Luckily for me, as a Steelers fan, I don’t believe that more victories will give him peace. He doesn’t need any more of those. He’s had plenty, and is still “giving up his life” and battling time itself. His quest can never be satisfied. Peace will come when it’s extinguished. Here’s praying that he has ears to hear about a righteousness that cannot be achieved, but must be received…a righteousness that says, “I forgive you.”

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