I've been confronted with what seems like a fair amount of grief lately - about some small stuff, and about some bigger stuff - and Ali's death came as a shock. Arriving so unexpectedly, it invoked a bizarre dissociation before the tears came. I didn't understand why at first, and then it hit me: Ali wasn't just my childhood idol, he was the tip of the spear for everything I believed defined masculinity for most of my life. Indefatigable courage. Poetry of heart. Eloquence in adversity. Standing on principle. Belief in self. Integrity. Physical prowess and grace. Willingness to speak one's mind, regardless of the personal cost. Intelligence. Persistence. Thinking deeply about one's beliefs, then being willing to abandon cherished plans in order to live by those beliefs. Being multidimensional...and good at it. All of these things and more have remained with me for years, and Muhammad Ali was the anchor that held them in place without my fully realizing it. Even in death, he is still there, grounding the value of these qualities in my psyche; but the living force that so beautifully animated them has shed its mortal coil. That will take some time to integrate.
Now that I have thought about this, I also now know why I have allowed Ali's symbolic presence to languish in my subconscious: It was because he also offered less than positive lessons that have been very difficult for me to learn. That sticktoitiveness can become stubbornness, and stubbornness, in turn, can have tragic costs. That truth can become mean and arrogant, and that this can both undermine its effectiveness and demean the person who speaks it. That idols can have flaws. That physical violence against another human being - no matter how refined and artful in its form - is really just horrific animalism at its core. These lessons do not diminish Ali in my eyes...I don't think the young boy within my heart will ever allow that. That boy will still cheer and prance with delight at every jab and punch that Ali made with his fists and words. But those lessons temper the qualities I so worshipped in Ali back then, and rearrange the priorities of what it means to be a man - even as I am still learning them myself.
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