The Whole Universe Is Against Terrell Owens

This GQ piece on Terrell Owens, presently exiled from the grid-iron, got me thinking a lot about my son, the psychology of children, and regrettably, very often adults.

I think this is rather illustrative:

It's his mouth, that unhinged gusher of an orifice with its gleaming slice of teeth. Or at least memories of the chemistry-killing vitriol that spewed from that mouth during his time with San Francisco, Philadelphia, Dallas. And how he punctuated the raw stream of consciousness with a magic bag of clever if ultimately self-destructive antics once the play ended: the spike on the "sacred" Dallas star logo in 2000, the Sharpie pulled from his sock to sign a ball after a 2002 touchdown against the Seahawks, the 2006 Thanksgiving Day TD after which he blithely deposited the ball into a huge Salvation Army kettle. 

If there's one word Owens can't abide, it's regret. The mere sound of the syllables sends ripples of discomfort across his face. His grandmother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's soon after San Francisco picked him in the third round of the 1996 draft and hasn't recognized him for years, always told him: "Never regret anything." They talked bad about Jesus, she would remind him, so you know they're going to talk bad about you. "To say I regret anything would be a slap in my grandmother's face," he says. 

"Are there some things I might do differently now? Sure." Such as? "Some of the things in Philadelphia." He sits back in his chair, seeming to catalog the events in his head: proclaiming that he didn't care what fans thought of him, the locker-room tussle with his teammate Hugh Douglas, the various flare-ups with Donovan McNabb. But definitely not his attempt to renegotiate his $49 million, heavily back-loaded contract. 

"I was not paid competitively, and that was that," he says. "The teams talk about how we should keep to our end of the bargain, but then they dump you at the point at which you'd actually start earning out, and that is supposed to be okay. Why don't they need to keep up their end?" 

How about the decision not to publicly apologize to McNabb for suggesting in an interview immediately after the Eagles lost the Super Bowl that the quarterback had "got tired" on the field? For a moment, he is silent. Could he actually be on the verge of admitting he made an error? "Well, I probably should have done...," he begins, rubbing his hand along the contours of his massive shaved dome. Then he stops himself. 

"No. No. Listen, I was in the locker room before the press conference, and my team captain, Jeremiah Trotter, read through that apology they wrote for me. He got to the bottom part, the part where it had the stuff about Donovan, and he did this." Owens snatches a piece of paper from the table and rips off the bottom three inches. "This is the team leader we're talking about; he told me not to do it." (Trotter's response: "Totally inaccurate. I would never do anything like that. I never even saw the letter. I'm the one that told him to apologize to get back on the team.") 

His only real mistake, Owens insists, was "timing. I might not have said or done things at exactly the right moment" (though it's hard to imagine the right time to publicly dis your QB). He concedes, after some prodding, that he lacks an essential social skill that has cost him. "I am not," he says, "a tactful person."

The article pretty much follows this format. Owens is too trusting, subjected to double-standards,  and persecuted for shadowy motives. One can almost hear George Constanza crying out, "This whole universe is out to get me." The notion that it's never our fault is deeply seductive, and dove-tails back to the last post on Gingrich and his supporters. But reading this all I could think about is how much I want to prevent my kid from growing up into someone who subscribes to the "Whole Universe" theory of persecution.

I say that, because we're in this phase where the "Whole Universe" theory is frequently bantered about. We've created an environment that's very good at instilling confidence, something I didn't have much of as a child, but not so good at instilling the humility that comes with that wiser confidence.

I know I wasn't particularly humble at 11. I remember my mother asking why I'd gotten in trouble and I'd always begin with "Soandso did xxxx to me." My Mom would just shake her head and say, "I don't want to hear about them, what did you do?" I swear it was as if she was speaking German. I could feel my brain aching under the question. In my mind, I simply couldn't tell you what I'd done without explaining what had been done to me. But the lesson I got--after many, many, many years--is that context is not a divine mitigant for responsibility. Indeed in some case, it's none at all.

My Dad always urges me to "own the situation," and to "live in a space of learning"--even when I feel I've deeply wronged. His point is that there is great power to be acquired when you eliminate the "I'll apologize, if you apologize first" kind of dynamic. It's not so much about being the bigger man, as trying to become a much stronger person.

This is work even as an adult. For an 11-year old, it's almost impossible. My hope is that these constant talks and discussions add up, and at some point, the light-switch will go off. But I see so many adults who in their explanations sound like my son, hunting for reasons to make himself right. 

It's a scary thing to look past your racial fears, to be able to imagine your child in college, without a criminal record, without having been shot, with a career and a family, but then to see there's work beyond that. It gets back to our imagined "World Of Whiteness" where everyone's jeans fit, and white people "give each other things." We thought the perils of the hood were the end all. And now we fine they are just the start, that there are questions that don't go away: How do you raise a moral child? How do you make (in my case) a man who doesn't shuffle, who does not have "What had happened..." or "If I hadda had my gun..." or any of its non-ebonic variants and translations in his vocabulary?

Mountains, beyond Mountains, the game and then The Game, that sort of thing.