For those of you who aren’t Canadian, perhaps this name might not mean much, but this past week, Canada lost one of its its great cultural icons, famed athlete Jean Beliveau. He died and all Canadians, including this Canadian in exile, mourn his passing.
Jean Beliveau was more than an athlete, though certainly he was a one-in-a-million athlete. The record of his achievements almost defies belief. He played in the National Hockey League for 20 seasons and retired with 10 championship rings. Later, as an executive, he was part of another seven championship teams. Imagine anyone, in any sport, at the highest level, winning 17 championships!
But that wasn’t what defined his greatness, nor the reason why a country fell in love with him and made him a national icon. It was his grace, the exceptional way that he carried himself both on and off the ice. Seventeen championships are remarkable, but his real achievement was the respect that he drew from everyone, both inside the athletic arena and outside of it. I don’t know of any pro athlete, in any sport, who has garnered this type of respect. Indeed, long after his professional career was over, the Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien asked him to become the Governor-General of Canada, an office offered only to someone who is, for an entire country, a symbol of unity, dignity and grace. He graciously declined.
What made him so unique? There have been other great athletes and pop stars who were humble and gracious. What sets him apart? Greatness is somewhat of an intangible; it’s hard to nail down what precisely sets someone apart in this way. Why Jean Beliveau? He was just a hockey player after all. What made him so singular in drawing respect?
The renowned Polish psychiatrist, Kasmir Dabrowski, had a thought-provoking theory about human maturity and what it takes to get here. For him, we grow by breaking down, by being driven to our knees through various crises which force us to move beyond our mediocre habits and immaturities. Richard Rohr calls this falling upwards: We mature through failure, grow arrogant through success. Mostly that’s true. Success, more than failure, destroys lives.
But is that logical? Isn’t it more logical to grow through success? Shouldn’t success induce gratitude within us and make us more generous and big-hearted? Someone asked Dabrowski that question in class one day. This was his answer: “You’re right, success should make us more grateful and big-hearted; that’s the ideal way to grow … except, in more than 40 years of clinical experience, I have never seen it work that way. It only works that way in rare, exceptional cases … and that, I believe, is what makes for a great person.” A great person is someone in whom success enlarges the soul rather than swells the ego.
When Jean Beliveau broke into the National Hockey League he was, at that time, the tallest, most skilled, most graceful and handsomest player in the league. No small gifts to carry. He was a little like the young King Saul, who is described in the Bible this way when crowned king: “Among the men of Benjamin was a man called Saul, a handsome man in the prime of life. Of all the Israelites there was no one more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders taller than anyone else.” But, sadly, all of that giftedness and success did not make Saul a good king. Rather it destroyed him. Clinging falsely to his giftedness, his life became a tragedy. His height and grace and handsomeness left him jealous before the gifts of others and he became paranoid and spiteful and eventually ended up taking his own life. Saul’s story is one of the greatest tragedies ever written and sadly it keeps getting written too many times in the lives of the hugely talented. Giftedness comes with its own perils. Giftedness and success just as easily swell the ego as enlarge the soul.
Sadly, we see a lot of that today, not the least in the sports world where ego and self-promotion is legitimized and is often even seen as a desired quality inside an athlete, a virtue rather than a vice, because bravado and arrogant strut can help intimidate opponents, win games and make the world watch. It makes for color, for hype, brings fans to the park, and awards a certain notoriety and fame. Character gets trumped by color and hype.
Even so, I’m glad I once knew a different time, a time when athletes and most everyone else still had to be apologetic about ego and self-promotion. I’m glad that when I was a boy, obsessed with sports and looking for a hero among athletes, there was a superstar, Jean Beliveau, who eschewed arrogance, bravado, strut, the taunting of opponents and crass self-promotion, and played the game with such grace and humility that it invoked the right kind of admiration, even as it won games.