Andrew Luck, Metta and the search for our humanity

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On Saturday, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck announced his retirement from football. After seven successful seasons in the NFL, the toll on his body became insurmountable. He explained that he’d been caught in a “cycle of injury, pain and rehab,” which was “unrelenting, both in season and off season.” This is understandable. Over the course of his career, his injuries have included a torn cartilage in two ribs, a partially torn abdomen, a lacerated kidney, a concussion, a torn labrum in this throwing shoulder, which caused him to sit out the 2017 season, and most recently, an injury to his calf and ankle.

The response to his announcement was mixed. While many expressed support around his decision, many others, including sports journalists, were critical. The negatives ranged from questions about his grit to outrage that he’d let down his team. Fans actually booed as he walked off the field after a preseason game against the Chicago Bears. Initially, I was shocked by the negative responses, especially the booing. But after taking a beat to think about it, I wasn’t.

This is who we are now.

We’re okay with children being separated from their families and kept in jail cells at the southern border. We tolerate innocent people being gunned down in public spaces. We’ve become numb to a childish and hateful Commander-in-Chief who instigates division, lies with impunity and incites violence. Given all this, it’s no surprise to me that a stadium full of “fans” would boo a man for making the personal decision to take care of his health. (The irony that a man is catching flak for ownership of his body isn’t lost on me.)

This is who we are now. But is it too late? Is there reason to still believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity? Is there a chance to find our way again, to recognize some sort of empathetic commonality? Is grace still possible?

I don’t know.

I’ve certainly had my share of tumultuous moments and lapses in decorum. I’ve engaged in extremely heated arguments over immigration and reproductive rights. I’ve gone head-to-head with strangers on Facebook over police brutality and racial injustice. My mom rage has been triggered in the name of protecting my transgender daughter. While I could have been more finessed in some of these encounters, I don’t know if I’m sorry for any of them, especially the latter. Anyone whose daughter has been chased off a train platform and into a busy intersection by an unprovoked mad man threatening to kill her would certainly understand. This leads us to the question of civility and its possible limitations. In my mind, there’s a notable contrast between merely having a difference of opinion with someone and actively supporting policies or activities that create clear harm for others. If someone is preaching hate or violence, am I obligated to be nice to them in the name of civility? Or to put it more coarsely, is it really so bad to punch a Nazi?

So where does this leave us?

If we’re trying to find the goodness in humanity, then maybe the first step is to look for the goodness in ourselves. One tool that is sometimes helpful for me in this effort is Metta practice, a meditation on loving kindness.  Loving kindness is one of the four immeasurables of Buddhism. The other three are compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. As we settle into our Metta meditation, we silently repeat three simple phrases: “May I have physical happiness. May I have mental happiness. May I live with ease.” We start with ourselves to lay the groundwork, visualizing mental happiness, physical happiness and living with ease, whatever these may look like. We then direct the meditation towards others- loved ones, daily acquaintances (i.e. the cashier at the grocery store) and people we have difficulty with. And then we extend the meditation to all living beings across the universe. With each phase of the practice, we open just a little more, generating spaciousness and compassion. When practiced regularly with clear intention, Metta can be beautifully transcendent.

I’m a woman with strong opinions, robust passions and rough edges. Frankly, I don’t know if even Buddhism can save us. But I do know that when I engage in Metta practice, I develop a more gentle relationship with myself and a deeper sense of empathy for others. Sometimes when I’m in a funk, I do a mobile version of Metta, sending wishes of loving kindness to people I see out and about: to the man jogging up the hill on Cherry Street, may he have physical happiness; to the woman standing at the crosswalk, holding a latte, may she have mental happiness; to the elderly couple in the drugstore, may they live with ease. It’s a fun way of sending secret wishes into the world, while also softening my own heart. If it bolsters something bigger and better, then so be it. I just don’t claim to know.

To ponder whether to believe or not is to juggle with dichotomy. Perhaps history will be the final arbiter as to the state of our humanity; whether we were able to salvage some fundamental goodness or if that baseline deteriorated forever. Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to choose which side of history we’ll personally land on. As for Andrew Luck, I wish him well and have nothing but respect for his decision. He did what he had to do for his health, his family and his life. May he have physical happiness. May he have mental happiness. May he live with ease.