Watching ESPN the other day, I saw a report on Lou Gehrig, his iconic speech, and the history leading to that speech. In short, the fact is that he did not know the severity of his condition. His doctors and friends lied to him. He thought he was getting better and that he might be able to return to a normal life.
My first reaction was that I did not want to know this. The speech, the ideal of courage in the face of unavoidable and painful deterioration followed by death, was too great to lose. Why destroy this idol when no one was served by it? Why shouldn't we be inspired by this moment of crystalline perfection, of pellucid heroism that could inspire generations to face our much lesser problems with courage and grace? And what harm could it do?
Yet, we have an allegiance to the truth that cannot be ignored. And to believe the comforting lie about Gehrig weakens our ability to pursue truth in all areas. If Gehrig is off limits because we want his courage to be perfect, how can we justify upsetting beliefs other people take to be similarly sacred?
So, reluctantly, I applaud ESPN investigating the facts about the icon and the circumstances of his speech provided the investigation is uncovering the truth. What to think about Gehrig and the speech? First, the ideal it illustrates might still be useful one to emulate even if it is not based on Gehrig's knowledge of his own imminent death. Second, we should recognize that the speech does represent considerable courage in the face of hardship. He may have been unrealistic about his prognosis, but he still dealt with a difficult and debilitating disease with grace. We should continue to admire that courage. We can still recognize courage realistically and model our lives after it without illusions.