Michael Vick and The Power of Weakness

I’m not a football fan. There is only one sport that steadily grasps my attention – National League Baseball (unsullied by the DH). However, I know enough about football to be impressed by a 333-yard passing game with four touchdowns combined with an 88-yard running game with two touchdowns. I also know enough about Michael Vick to know that Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson probably should not have described the team as “pit bulls ready to get out of the cage.”

In an article on Vick, Liam Nee describes him as “a complete quarterback for [the] first time” because of Vick’s success with both passing and running. In quite a different article, Tara Sullivan notes that no matter what his talent, Vick cannot outrun his past. For me, though, the reason that this story may be relevant for this blog shines through the words of Giants linebacker Michael Boley: “He’s been humbled… That makes all the difference.”

In the many hours between my brief forays in the blogosphere and sports-world, I’ve been reading the Brahmasūtra and Śankara’s commentary thereupon. The Brahmasūtra is a collection of extraordinarily brief aphorisms discussing the Upanishads, which are ancient Hindu philosophical texts. The very first word of the Brahmasūtra is interesting in itself: अथ (atha), which translates as “next…” This is a curious way to begin a book, which is why Śankara devotes several pages to discussing the word. “Next” implies that something comes before it. But what should come before? After what?

According to Śankara, we can only begin to study a text like the Brahmasūtra after (अथ) we attain four prerequisites: Discrimination (which includes the ability to use logic and reason), Dispassion, Self-control of mind and body, and a desire for liberation. Although dispassion (vairāgya, वैराग्य) is not quite the same thing as humility, I think it is safe to say that one cannot be dispassionate unless one is humble. Humility, then, is one of the prerequisites for reading a formational text like the Brahmasūtra.

I am not suggesting that Michael Vick had a 400-yard, 6 touchdown game because he was humble. Humility is clearly not a prerequisite for success in sports. What I am trying to suggest is that it was only because of his humility that he was able to re-form himself. It takes humility to let go of who we are in order to become who we might be. It takes humility to close our mouths and open our ears to the voice of the other. For Vick (on the field, kshetre, क्षेत्रे), humility meant listening to his Philly coaches in a way that he, perhaps, didn’t listen to his Atlanta coaches. Off the field (dharme?, धर्मे?), Vick’s humility means volunteering at the humane society instead of… well… working with dogs in a different capacity.

It only stands to reason that if we want to truly improve ourselves – to form and reform ourselves – we cannot cling too tightly to the person that we are right now. We must weaken ourselves. Only soft clay can be molded into a new form. Dispassion (vairāgya) includes being dispassionate about our “self”. At the risk of oversimplifying Advaita Vedānta, only by weakening and deconstructing our notions of the “little self” (jīva) can we come to know that deeper, ultimate true Self (Ātman) within. For me, personally, of the four prerequisites for Vedānta, vairāgya – dispassion/humility – is the one I most struggle with. It is difficult to detach myself from my-self in order to not only hear others, but to be (re)formed by their words.

For Michael Vick, humility came in the form of a two year expulsion from football, jail time, and an overwhelming tide of public loathing. Only time will tell if his reformation on and off field is genuine or not. Perhaps he is a “complete quarterback” as Nee puts it. But to be a complete person, he’ll need more than a strong arm and fast feet. He’ll need a strength called weakness: To be in a true state of formation or re-formation is to be in a state of dispassion and humility.

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5 thoughts on “Michael Vick and The Power of Weakness

  1. A powerful and compelling article – thank you!

    There is something about the concept of humility, particularly in a religious setting, which tends to set my teeth on edge – especially when combined with an attack on pride (not a step you take here). You suggest that “It only stands to reason that if we want to truly improve ourselves – to form and reform ourselves – we cannot cling too tightly to the person that we are right now. We must weaken ourselves.”

    Perhaps this is true in some circumstances. But it others it seems to me that it is only by holding tight to the person we are right now that we will gain the strength to change. I think of LGBT kids struggling in religious environments that tell them, continually, that they are less than their straight peers. If they are going to escape the feelings of shame and self-hatred with which they are being inculcated, and truly change their own conception of themselves, then they don’t need a drop more humility.

    They need to have pride, and they need to fight. Sometimes, I think, humility will get in the way of change. I’ve never heard this message from a religious leader, but I’d like to!

    1. James,
      Many thanks for your comment. I completely agree with you and I welcome the critique. Some years ago, I took a class with James Cone on Malcolm & Martin in America. I took the class b/c I was interesting in MLK, but I was suprised to find myself captivated by Malcolm X. The way Cone looks at it is this… MLK taught African Americans to love their neighbor (even those who despised them) as themselves. Malcolm, however, taught African Americans to love themselves. We cannot love our neighbors as ourselves if we do not love ourselves. There is, I think, some golden mean of humility – and I appreciate your raising the issue of an overdose of humility that becomes self-loathing, etc.

      As for religious leaders (or, at least, theologians) who champion such issues and preach such messages, especially with regard to LGBTQ adolescents… I am actually heading over right now to meet with one of them: Prof. Mark Jordan e.g., http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news/events_online/QueerYouthReligiousDebates.html

      1. I’m a big fan of Prof. Jordan, so thank you for reminding me about his work! Your analogy with MLK and Malcolm X really helped me think through this – I have had so many experiences, particularly in my work as a prison educator, where the real problem was that the people didn’t love themselves, not that they loved themselves overmuch. I am now realizing how much these experiences inform my perspective!

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful reflections, Brad. I am unfamiliar with these Hindu texts – but I really appreciated the way you connect them to formation. Favorite line: “It takes humility to let go of who we are in order to become who we might be. It takes humility to close our mouths and open our ears to the voice of the other.”

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