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In need of a hero

Sport, that great anachronism. An exhibition of passion and will, a struggle of endurance, a demonstration of teamwork in an age of individualism, all culminating in a championship. The story of the 2009-2010 Duke men’s basketball team was transformed into a heroic epic as the last nerve-wracking seconds ticked away leaving only Duke still standing.

But when the Homeric story ended, the world didn’t take much time to snap back to normalcy. A couple of class cancelations may have prolonged the celebration, but soon enough it was back to the daily grind. The remnants of the game survived in the form of two new questions heard around campus: “Where did you watch the game?” and “How did you celebrate?”

These are more than innocuous questions. They are gasps for air, probes for weak points in the modern psyche that permits no room for prolonged celebration. Our world is one of binary oppositions: Be rich or suffer poverty; be skinny or suffer obesity; be successful or suffer failure. And success is defined through the constant accumulation of more; rest for too long and you will miss out on the gravy train.

On the surface, this value system doesn’t seem much different than that of the sports world. You either win or you lose. But sports are different, mostly because of their ends. Athletic competition, unlike that of the marketplace, is not about accumulation. In seeing Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski show that much emotion after winning a fourth championship, it’s obvious that the number of trophies doesn’t matter. 

It’s about something more, about the magic produced when a group of people band together to achieve a common goal and then realize their collective dream. We revel in sports, in stories of achievement, even in fairy tales like those of “Harry Potter” because we can clearly see the underlying purpose of it all.

We watch a movie about some epic achievement, and we leave the theater comforting ourselves by compartmentalizing the experience: “It’s just a movie.” Is that because we have become too tame to dream big? Or is it because we wander through life aimlessly—every time a purpose rears its head, do we shrink from taking on the task because it is too bold, too fantastical, too much?

These heroic tasks invariably seem to benefit others. The hero in Greek mythology may have been seeking individual glory, but such glory could only be achieved through service. Present-day heroes are often chosen from a select group of individuals dedicated to serving the community. The immortals among athletes are those who bring their team success—many individual hall of fame considerations, for example, take into account championships won. 

But we’re supposed to be selfish, we are told, thanks to Adam Smith. To some extent, we have even tried to classify heroic acts as somehow self-interested. But perhaps we were told the wrong story about Smith. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen spoke at Duke two weeks ago about the misinterpretation of Smith’s system. Smith, the proto-architect of the way we live our lives, expected more heroism from humankind. Self-interest will certainly motivate some actions, but we must also always keep in mind the needs, wishes, hopes and dreams of others. 

Before you buy into the individualistic philosophy of an Ayn Rand, consider for just a moment whether you felt anything at all when you saw Duke cut down the nets, or, on the flip side, when you saw a dejected Butler team collapse emotionally. Then ask yourself why.

There is an old Rabbinic teaching that captures Smith’s point well, although it precedes Smith’s work by almost 1,800 years. Rabbi Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

With semester-concluding decisions upon us, we cannot fall into the trap of selfish abandon. It’s tempting to believe the myth that purely self-interested individuals will make choices that benefit society as a whole. Sometimes, that’s true. But even Smith couldn’t imagine a system that disregarded social responsibility, and Rabbi Hillel described a purely selfish individual as a “what” rather than a “who.” Selfishness infringes on our very humanity.

This isn’t to say that we should all drop everything we have planned to join the Peace Corps. Some of the most socially responsible people made their riches first and then looked for ways to benefit the community. But every minute of every day will present you with an opportunity to help someone else, to be a responsible member of the society you wish to see.

At the precipice of action, you must ask yourself, “If not now, when?” May the dedication to ask that question be the legacy that the Blue Devil’s athletic achievement has on the Duke community.

Elad Gross is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Friday.

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