Over the weekend, I received the following message from a reader:
It would appear that Novak Djokovic's hubris may have finally caught up with him and he is rapidly losing whatever support and good will he still had with me. Between the anti-vaccination stand, to wanting the Grand Slam events to be fully open to fans, and the now obviously ill-conceived Adria Tour—where no pandemic protocols seemed to be observed and multiple top players (now including Djokovic and his wife) have tested positive for the virus—I am finding it very difficult to root for him in any capacity. For a man who seems to very much need/want to be liked by everyone, he certainly seems to be going about getting that approval in a very odd way. I would be very curious of your take on all this.
I’m glad this reader used the word “hubris.” Yes, there’s something fiercely contemporary to this story. (I envision someone reading this headline on Jan.1 “Djokovic tests positive for COVID-19 as Adria Tour cancels” and then wondering what kind of mushrooms they’d been served.) But there is also something fiercely classical about this tale. The entire plot, in fact, is right out of the canon of Greek mythology.
Once upon a time, there was a mortal who experienced great success in his field. He started believing his greatness extended and, in fact, he was immune to the laws of the universe. The unshakable self-belief that made him so accomplished in his field? It morphed into something that suddenly applied to all endeavors. He thumbed his nose at convention and the mortals who took silly precautions and limited their beliefs to the parameters of science and the physical world.
When a global pandemic hit, his narcissism went into high gear. Not unlike flying too close to the sun or staring at his reflection, he expressed a skepticism of vaccines. He trumpeted his belief that positive energy can alter water. He disregarded a land’s policies on distancing. Some mortals tried to warn him that this was reckless and irresponsible. But there was no backstop. He had surrounded himself with supporters. His parents believed he was not mortal. He had no membrane that could get him to see the error of his ways. Instead, there was an echo chamber of loyalists, confirming it all. What they lacked in number they made up for in intensity, dismissing any one remotely critical as “sheep” or “liberal media” or the jealous fans of his rivals.
Emboldened by his loyal supporters, and by now deeply convinced of his invincibility, he held a celebration throughout his land, a great, multiday traveling feast. He invited his friends and colleagues. The pandemic sweeping the world? Pah! This was an occasion to showcase his immunity, literally his immortality. Others might be in lockdown. Or affixing a mask before they pumped gasoline. Or worried about spreading this virus to someone in an older generation. He would dance and play sports and hug and party like it was 2019.
But, as they are wont to do, the gods grew angry. No one knows the ringleader, which god took the lead. Was it Science or Biology or Virology or Math or simply Objective Truth? Who knows? But they were displeased with this display of pride and self-importance and condescension. And, lo, did they strike down upon him with great vengeance and furious anger. First his friends tested positive for the virus he had mocked. Then, a day later, he tested positive as well.
With that came concern. An unlikely truth-teller rightly declared this virus NOT A JOKE. The entire citizenry hoped all would make a fast recovery. But this positive test also brought much ridicule and disappointment and condemnation from all over the world. (Especially from the camps of his rivals.)
Here’s what gives this tale an edge of sadness. For all his hubris, our central character was not an evil man. Not at all. If fact, he cared deeply about public approval, especially as his two rivals simply seemed to get it with so little effort. He was capable of staggering kindness and good acts. Just weeks earlier, he led the organization of a relief fund for his colleagues during the plague. His tennis celebration—blazingly irresponsible as it was—was not organized in malice, quite the opposite.
But it was reckless and self-glorifying and selfish in that it didn’t think through the way a highly contagious virus might act. It was strange, as well, that this person who believed in cosmic forces like peace and love and good energy overcoming hydrogen and oxygen atoms, would not also believe in karma. A b****, this karma is.
This story may have the classic ring of a Greek myth. But there is a critical difference: there are chapters left to be authored. Would that our protagonist makes amends and molts the hubris that got him into this mess. Would that he makes a meaningful apology, not some press release crafted with the clumsiness of Hephaestus. Would that he resigns from the tribal council, at least temporarily, while his “leadership” is so sorely at odds with the best interest of his colleagues.
In the Year of the Plague, our protagonist was undefeated at his chosen pursuit. But when the sport resumed, he had much to win back.