I was shocked. Weren't you? Wasn't everybody? Oscar Pistorius, a hero to millions and a heartwarming story to millions more, was charged Thursday of murdering his girlfriend. This is a headline you have to read three times before you can process it once.
But why we were shocked? Any murder is shocking, and should be, but why were we especially shocked by this one? Pistorius was a hero? Heroes fall every day -- we all know that. Were we shocked because he is a double-amputee? I think so, and that is both understandable and absurd. Are double-amputees less likely to commit sick crimes? I haven't seen the stats on that one, and I'm guessing you haven't either.
We don't know all the details, or Pistorius's side, if he has one. But we liked the Oscar Pistorius story precisely the way we'd heard it. He had both legs amputated below the knee when he was a baby, ran on his super-advanced carbon-fiber prosthetic blades, fought like crazy to compete against full-bodied athletes, then got his chance to run at the Olympics in London.
I didn't think he should be allowed to run in the Olympics, because I don't want technology playing that much of a role in an Olympic event; but I felt terrible about viewpoint, and ultimately, it gave way to awe. When Pistorius ran in London, I was inspired. Here was a double-amputee who was so successful that he allowed the rest of us to not feel bad for him. That was his gift to our guilty consciences, and we were grateful for it.
You had to love the story. We didn't want to imagine Pistorius as a complex person -- whether it be charming or irritable and possibly violent. As it turns out, we should have known he was violent -- South African police said Thursday that there had been a history of incidents at Pistorius's home, and I'm surprised that never got out before. But we didn't want to know.
Pistorius always wanted to compete with the best sprinters in the world, and we should have viewed him that way. We should have realized he was fundamentally an elite, hyper-competitive athlete. In that context, his apparent crime is not as surprising. Imagine reading this story:
We would be ... less shocked. Why? Not only because he was a football player and we (naturally) associate the game with violence, but also because we would start thinking about concussions and brain damage and how it can corrupt a man's ability to think straight. So the next time a current or former NFL player commits a violent crime or takes his own life, remember Oscar Pistorius. Concussions are a deadly serious concern, but they are not the only explanation for human madness. Human madness preceded the NFL by thousands of years.
With some heros, we get the general picture and paint the rest of it with pink hearts. Pistorius was one of those, just as Lance Armstrong was. What fascinates me about Lance Armstrong is that many people see his charity work and inspirational story, and they can't reconcile it with his almost sociopathic desire to destroy anybody in his professional path. The "two sides" of Armstrong are not really two sides. They come from the same place. His speeches and fundraising helped millions, which is wonderful. But they also fed Armstrong's ego and protected him from truth-tellers for many years. Motives are seldom as pure as they seem.
Celebrity athletes live two lives: Their own, and the one we imagine for them. This was especially true for Pistorius, because most of us don't follow his sport on a day-to-day basis, and because his journey was such an obvious triumph of spirit and dedication. This was what we knew about him. The rest, we filled with pink hearts.
So yes: I was shocked. It hasn't quite worn off. And I don't think that's so awful.
We want to believe in the inherent goodness of people. We really do. It doesn't seem that way sometimes, when we bathe in sarcasm and gorge on schadenfreude, and too many people get an adrenaline rush out of pathetic Twitter feuds or cheap jokes. But we really truly do want to believe in the inherent goodness of people. Sometimes that makes us feel foolish. But of all our shared traits, I hope we never lose that one.