A Tale of Two Michaels

As music icon Michael Jackson was planning his return to the stage, basketball icon Michael Jordan was appearing in a less familiar arena. At the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge, Mr. Jordan shot an 86 — not bad, but a little off his game.

His foursome included Justin Timberlake, Ben Roethlisberger, and Larry Giebelhausen, a Phoenix police lieutenant who had won the privilege of playing in such celebrated company with a six-word contest entry: “I’m a Cop; I’ll Shoot Low.”

It’s hard to imagine Michael Jackson having participated in a similar venue. Whatever common touch the pop star might have once had, it disappeared decades ago, along with his original nose, cheekbones, and coloring, under the searing lights of fame and fortune. It’s to Michael Jordan’s credit that he has retained a bit of humility, to allow “one of the folks” to hobnob with him over 18 holes (not to mention remaining gracious while performing below his usual standard).

No one really doubts whether Mr. Jackson’s meteoric success from such a young age contributed to his tragic decline into scandal, freakishness, and premature death. The kind of humility displayed by Mr. Jordan could never have survived the early adulation accorded Mr. Jackson, no matter how humble his beginnings.

Perhaps the difference can be summed up by what Michael Jordan once said about himself: “I’ve failed over and over and over in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

The sages teach that a tzaddik falls seven times. By grappling with obstacles, by failing and learning from their mistakes, those with the potential to achieve spiritual greatness succeed in achieving it. So too in almost every form of endeavor.

Michael Jordan may not be what we think of as a tzaddik, a truly righteous man. But it is reassuring to see someone who occupies the highest strata of celebrity status showing us that wealth and notoriety do not have to produce the kind of self-absorption, self-indulgence, or ghoulishness that we have come to expect.  It is equally reassuring to contemplate how there may be no more reliable strategy for climbing the ladder of success than by persisting in the upward ascent from one rung of failure to another.


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