This October, at the decade’s end, after the Texas Rangers improbably beat the New York Yankees for the pennant, Hamilton stands as the likely MVP of the entire American League for the 2010 season. And yet, after beating the Yankees, with clarity of his own greater reality, he had to step away from the locker room celebrations knowing that the simple smell of the spewing champagne could be enough to trigger his addiction. He, instead, joined a supportive teammate and went back out to the field to be in a more contemplative space for celebration and reflection.
While I was only modestly interested in the subsequent World Series, I felt myself wanting to see Hamilton’s every at-bat, wanting to see him succeed, wanting to continue to find the hope in his incredible story. But, he didn’t succeed and his team didn’t either. They lost to the San Francisco Giants in just 5 games and Hamilton performed rather poorly. Now that the season is over, I reflect with unease knowing that Josh Hamilton, regardless of his baseball comeback and this big “dream” of a story, is a man who wakes up every day and fights to maintain his sobriety. He is a man whose greatest feat, his real success, has little to do with his power to hit the opposing pitcher and everything to do with having the power to control himself and his own addictions.
So, what does this have to do with 21st century America? To be clear, it is not about the usual answers. It has nothing to do with this being a country that gives a former “junkie” a second chance. It has nothing to do with the notion that “anything is possible” in this country if you just work hard enough. It has nothing to do with personal redemption or the path of the righteous and/or the chosen.
No, Hamilton’s story and his hard work start new every day; there is no path. And, while he worked hard and achieved in baseball what must have seemed impossible in his darkest days, tomorrow starts anew with the same pitfalls and challenges of addiction. Hamilton wasn’t given a second chance; he created it, and re-creates it every day. And while others began the “off-season,” Hamilton had to commit to his sobriety the morning after the World Series just as he did the very first day he got sober.
For this reason, I believe Hamilton’s story captures the promise of America in the 21st century. We will not be given our prosperity in this century as some sort of right; we must create it, and re-create it every day. Gone are the days of wielding our inherited gifts and natural resources to impose our will upon entire nations deemed our ideological opponents; these are days to focus our power first on managing ourselves and inspiring others who are also experiencing difficult times. Gone are the days of popping the proverbial champagne and celebrating the inevitability of the great narrative of American possibility; these are days to commit every morning and reflect every evening on writing that great narrative. Gone are the days of hiding our transgressions as a nation, our addictions, our hubris; these are days of transparency, whether we like it or not, and a time for us all to humbly accept our humanity and our position and responsibility in a larger world.
This is not about doom and gloom or the end of America. It’s actually the opposite. This is about a new strategy. This is a story about a new approach to life, an approach that acknowledges our addictions, an approach that finds strength in accepting our weakness, an approach that sees such honesty as the most effective way to build the future we want to see. We are a flawed nation, and yet an incredibly strong nation that continues to provide great hope for people around the world. We are a nation that for generations got drunk on our economic superiority and now just needs to sober up and get back to work. I sincerely believe that if we face the 21st century with just a touch of humility and reflection we can continue as a world leader and not confuse this ideal with being a world dominator.
Perhaps we can find the strength as a country to live and reflect every day, celebrating our best selves and improving our worst selves, and acknowledging that the presence of both is not a flaw but in fact what it means to be human.
An addict, a gifted ball player, an openly flawed human being trying to make it through the next day to rebuild relationships, to build a new and better life, Josh Hamilton may just be the real-life hero we need to look to as together we write the narrative of 21st century America.