I feel bad for Michael Jordan

I feel bad for Michael Jordan. 

Jordan, of course, is one of the greatest basketball players in the history of the sport and one of the clutch performers of all time in any sport. You probably have heard the story that he did not make the varsity team during his sophomore year of high school; his coach picked Jordan’s friend, Leroy Smith, instead. (Smith was 6-foot-7 to Jordan’s then-5-10.) That snub drove Jordan’s pursuit of excellence throughout his career, so much so that when Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, he invited Smith to attend the ceremony, told the story, and pointed out that, while Smith’s stopped growing and didn’t get any better as a player, Jordan became, well, Jordan.

I know people – a lot of people, actually – who similarly use a past failure, snub or trauma to motivate them. Just as Jordan worked so hard to master his craft, just so he could say to the high school coach, “You made a mistake, dude,” so these people work so that they can go back to whoever slighted them and rub it in their face. They’re just not as famous or successful as MJ.

I was talking with a close friend the other day who knew this story and has said that they hope to be able to do something similar (on a smaller scale) – to be able to achieve something that enables them to show their doubters how wrong they were. And because they are a close friend, I was able to tell them something that they didn’t want to hear, something I don’t think Michael Jordan has admitted but I suspect learned the day after his Hall of Fame induction.

Revenge won’t make you whole. Proving the haters wrong won’t bring you peace.

I appreciate that on the surface it seems pretty silly to feel bad for Michael Jordan, since by every earthly measure he’s a remarkably successful human being. But to devote your whole life to a cause, achieve it, and then recognize that it was a cause that wasn’t worth the work is a tragedy.

I told my friend something that I expected they would not be able to really accept for a long time, but hoped they would remember: that the path to wholeness and peace isn’t revenge, but forgiveness, whether it’s merited or not. 

I told them that this is one of those things that sets apart true Christianity. There are other religions that will counsel you to let go of those slights and snubs and release that negative energy, but actually forgiving someone who does you wrong, whether or not they are repentant, seems like something you would only think to do if you have a constant reminder of Jesus forgiving the people who crucified him.

The reality is, I doubt Michael Jordan’s high school coach thought much of his roster decision at the time, and in my friend’s case, I am pretty sure that the people who slighted them have no memory of doing so. Whether my friend forgives them or not is entirely irrelevant to them, because they aren’t a part of my friend’s life.

But it will matter to my friend. Revenge is a form of hatred turned into action, and that action drives choices that over time, will make you a harder, pettier, less kind version of who you can be. If you let it become your focus, it can drive you to excellence and achievement. But only by ensuring that you never, ever, feel whole and never, ever, experience peace.

I hope my friend learns that message earlier rather than later; hopefully it won’t wait until they are an awards show stage to sink in. As much as we need excellence, there are other paths to get there. And what the world seems to have a greater shortage of than champions like Jordan is people who are whole, healed, and at peace. Those are the folks who can really transform the world.

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