Anyone who spends any time watching cable television is bound to develop a fairly depressed view of the American character. Vain housewives, self-absorbed designers, responsibility-denying restauranteurs, narcissistic chefs, fascistic dance teachers, scheming survivors, snide judges–altogether we see a whining, insecure, blame-shifting, easily-insulted mass of humanity at its shabbiest. Throw in the political channels, where we see one party drowning in denial, and the other a prisoner of its own helplessness. Thank goodness we can still watch sports, where pampered millionaires continue to explore the frontiers of chemistry in an effort to fend off inevitable decrepitude. All in all, it is a sad spectacle.
But then one sees the example of Roger Ebert. With his long and rewarding career as a film critic, Ebert would have had a deserved moment of respect had he died soon after being diagnosed with cancer in 2002. Instead, Ebert survived long enough to enter the most inspirational period of his life. Ebert’s initial surgery proved insufficient; the resilient cancer demanded stronger, more damaging measures, surgeries and radiation blasts that weakened him, cost him part of his jaw, and left him disfigured, and unable to speak, eat or drink.
Many of us would have been demolished by these developments. Not Ebert. Writing “I should be content with the abundance I have,” he threw himself into his work, reviewing films at a prodigious rate (300 last year alone) and embracing new technologies to become a frequent blogger and tweeter. He focused not on what had been denied to him, but what he retained; in his final blog post, written two days before his death, his mind was on gratitude. “Thank you for going on this journey with me,” he told his readers.
A similar tale can be told about Levon Helm, the first anniversary of whose death will fall on April 19th. Helm enjoyed vast success as a member of The Band, the rock group of the late sixties and early seventies. But after the group broke up, his career plateaued, and personal setbacks accumulated. Late in the nineties, Helm, like Ebert, was diagnosed with cancer, and the radiation treatments he underwent put the cancer in remission but robbed him of his distinctive, emotionally rich singing voice. Again, many of us would have been despondent; Helm threw himself into his music, and formed a new band in which focused on his talents as a drummer. Then, facing bankruptcy, he began putting on shows for small audiences at his home in Woodstock NY. Called Midnight Rambles, the shows spotlighted not oldies but an array of American musical genres–blues, country, gospel, New Orleans, rock. Every one was unique. When Helm recovered his singing voice, the Rambles became a must-see–an unpretentious, generous icon, heading a hot band, before a small audience in an intimate space. The Rambles revived Helm’s career and reestablished his stature as an artist, and he kept performing with joy and fortitude through his final illness until less than a month remained. As in Ebert’s case, Helm’s spirit and courage during the decade after his death sentence inspired everyone who knew the story.
The same kind of emotions greeted the film Searching for Sugar Man, which last February won the Oscar for Best Documentary . The film told the story of a couple of South African music fans who undertook a hunt for Rodriquez, an American singer who was wildly popular in South Africa in the seventies, and whose sudden disappearance mid-decade led to rumors of a lurid death. The intrepid fanst racked down every available lead, and eventually discovered that Sixto Rodriguez not only hadn’t died in 1975, but was still living in modest circumstances in his native Detroit.
Through the vagaries of fate, we learn, Rodriguez never achieved a show business breakthrough in America, and through the avarice of others, he was denied the income from his stardom in South Africa. But as the documentary shows, he still had a full life. He did not wallow in self-pity, He did not lose himself in bitterness over the past. Instead, he built a life. He raised a family. He worked at a job where he was valued by his colleagues. He earned a college degree and ran for office. Overall, it’s fair to say that the intrepid fans who found Rodriguez were more absorbed by his past than he was. Nor did he become starry-eyed by the money that now came to him, but gave most of it away. A prisoner neither to his disappointment nor to his success, he remains the captain of his life.
Ebert, Helm, Rodriquez–models of stoicism. They are men who met disappointment and worse, and faced their challenges with determination and courage. We used to have a lot of role models like them, a lot of people who got up before dawn and packed their lunches and went to work in hopes of making the lives of their families a little easier. Somewhere along the line, a brasher, nastier role model took over, people who built monuments to their own success but who were never satisfied with it. But the last five years have not been kind to most of us, and many of us have had to respond by lowering our heads to the wind and pushing on. We work longer, we do with less, and we begin to admire people who, facing even longer odds, embrace life, and the abundance that they have. Maybe the Stoic Hero is back.
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