Wrestling with Steve Irwin

Nine lives of the curiousA young friend reminded me today. “You know, I’m still really sad about the Alligator Guy.”
Me too. Steve Irwin’s death is sad, and a great loss, but I also feel we may be dishonoring Irwin to feel sad for him.

I wouldn’t pretend to speak for Irwin, nor certainly would I imagine that he wouldn’t have rather avoided the stingray’s barb. I will postulate however that the Alligator Guy died doing what he loved. I will speculate that while Irwin’s dangerous antics appeared effortless to us, no doubt he had a precise understanding of the odds and the risk.

An article written after his death quoted Irwin as having once joked with his producer: if ever one of his stunts proved fatal, “at least it will be on film.” I really have to believe that Steve Irwin braved the odds, and just as bravely met his fate.

I make this point because I think our culture is too ready to drown spiritual identity under the weight of a social mean. We can marvel at Steve Irwin’s individuality but we’ll discount his strength of character as soon as he is not around to surprise us again.

I asked my young friend about another of his heroes, Anakin Skywalker. Why ever would Anakin -with the power of The Force- have turned to the Dark Side?” He informed me: “Because he wanted Padme to live.” Really. Would his princess have accepted being saved if she knew that Anakin would sacrifice his soul?

To read any of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey in George Lucas’ Star Wars tale is to be full of shit. I do so resent this typical reduction of the heroic character. Humanizing the protagonist these days seems to require diminishing the human potential. We’re not talking about a tragic flaw in the Greek sense, we’re talking about the consumer’s creed: I me mine.

In these capitalist times we love the dictum “everybody has his price.” It seems carved in stone like “absolute power corrupts.” I believe it’s not very far removed from the crippling Catholic indoctrination of guilt, that we are all born sinners. I reject that handicap. We each may have our weaknesses, our predilections, our tragic flaws, but we are also what we want to be, and we can be good.

Muslims extremists, I believe, are similarly belittled. A suicide bomber willing to give his or her life for a cause is not by necessity brain-washed or waylaid. Selfless motives do not register with our Culture of Self. Insurgents rising in waves against American firepower, rise against our comprehension. The determination of the Vietcong porters along the Ho Chi Min trail was likewise not something we could easily fathom.

A pacifist friend of mine has a pact with his wife. Both like minded pacifists, they agreed never to resort to lethal force to protect one another. Neither wanted to be saved at the expense of the death of another human being. To act otherwise, while promising a less tragic outcome, would dishonor the path toward which both were committed.

Our culture does not want to honor people’s moral selves. It teaches that everyone, even Anakin, is turnable, as if there is no such thing as a moral compass. We preach morality but fear letting it inhabit individual peoples.

Steve Irwin was not perhaps a moral leader, but he was a hero. His heroism was his irrepressibly adventurous bravery. Now, it may be best for young minds to believe that Alligator Guy died instantaneously without suffering, but I read something more happened. Irwin’s companions say that after he was struck, they watched him pull the barb from his chest and look at it as he slowly lost consciousness. I don’t need to see the footage, but I’d like to face the reality of Steve Irwin’s death as he did. With curiosity and bravery.

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Eric Verlo

About Eric Verlo

On sabbatical
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