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Making Peace With My Heroes: How the Biography of Bruce Lee Changed My Appreciation for Him

Updated on September 3, 2018
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Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

I just read Bruce Lee: A Life, by Matthew Polly. Its been out for awhile but I happen to see it by chance and it looked interesting so I brought it. From what I read of it from reviews, it was challenging because of assertions it makes about him that were not well known to the public at large and definitely went against his established reputation. And while it was definitely challenging, it was not degrading of his character as it also verified many of the myths surrounding him as well as debunking others.

The Myth

Bruce Lee’s temper and history of street-fighting and challenges on set is nothing new. However any martial artist who knows anything about him knows that he was supposed to have tried to avoid those confrontations later on in life. The book also says that he was a notorious womanizer and had done some drugs as well. Someone considered to be the epitome of ultimate physique and creating the shirtless warrior legacy that has been in martial arts movies since Enter the Dragon in 1975. This was based off of interviews from people who knew him. Another challenging aspect was that many people hated him because they thought he was self-centered and arrogant. I was used to seeing people speak well of him.

Admittedly if I had read this a couple of years ago I probably would not have even finished the book. Like millions around the world, Bruce Lee is one my inspirations in life, both as a person as well as a martial artist. Though I never considered him a kung-fu Jesus like many others did, he did put into words many things I was coming to realize about the world.

Lately though, I have started to write a book on revolutionaries and in my research came across some common factors that they shared. One of them being that they are often deified by their followers after they had died or when the revolution was over. I have often been critical of this messiah complex and realizing this made me examine myself if I was doing the same with my heroes. This book clearly showed that I was. However it also revealed something else to me as well.

Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation
Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation | Source

The Man

One of Bruce Lee’s founding principles was take what was useful and leave the rest behind. It was a core aspect in his later approach to martial arts. The book allowed me to apply this aspect to the man himself. I am now at a point in my life where I can recognize that people are complicated and are capable of both inspirational acts and awful acts at the same time. One of my cousins’ framed it best saying, “ You accepted his humanity”.

And indeed I had. I felt bad for the man and his family having to live through those choices he made. He seemed like someone who had great difficulty controlling his impulses and struggled to find peace in world that offered many ideas and distractions that led to the contrary. Bruce Lee still had some very powerful ideas though. Ideas I imagine he was trying to live up to himself.

He defied racist tendencies in both America and Hong Kong. He believed in unrelenting convictions for one’s goals and his martial arts skills were beyond on point. He was a prodigy, the Micheal Jordan of martial arts: gifted and somehow in touch with something that seemed superhuman. The book confirmed these aspects about him.

These were the elements that inspired me to improve myself, not who he was was sleeping with or what drugs he did. Taking a step back, he was no different than many of the actors he worked and associated with. So it wasn't like it was extraordinarily out of character for the time period of Counter-Culture.

The Legend

There's a saying that goes never meet your heroes. Well I would change that. Never meet your heroes if you already created an idea of what they are like in your mind. Meet your heroes if you can let go of preconceived notions about them and accept that they were imperfect human beings that did extraordinary things. I would have thought that the former would be more inspirational to me but that's not the case. I actually find the latter more transcendent, like getting a glimpse at part of larger truth instead of looking at a manufactured one.

It’s something we all do. We see someone who says or does something so amazing that it takes us out of the mundane aspects of life and shows something bigger. Then whether by accident or intent, we add on attributes that we believe are a part of such an inspirational person’s character without ever confirming or denying them. Enough people do the same and then ‘boom’, you have a myth. If the myth outlasts the person long enough, then you have a god whose attributes and will cannot be refuted.

"He may have been trying to emulate his own demigods that lived in Hollywood, but he also tried to be separate from them as well."

In some way, getting an three-dimensional view of Bruce Lee freed me up. There was something enlightening about being an imperfect person while still striving to be a better one. And that I could freely appreciate him for what he did achieve and the goals he tried tor each, even if he may have failed along the way and there is no shame in that. Many people after all don't even bother trying.

So often in our world we are spoon fed stories of famous people that make them more myth than reality, untouchable and demigods. It imparts upon us the idea that we can try as hard as we want but we will never be reach those same heights, be chosen by fate, or be as special as those on the mountain top. Messiahs of our own making.

But Bruce’s philosophy of apply what is useful and reject the rest allowed me a way out from that. He may have been trying to emulate his own demigods that lived in Hollywood, but he also tried to be separate from them as well. Equal but unique. So perhaps the greatest lesson that his philosophy and his life has imparted to me was to try to be the best person you can be, but don’t try to do it like someone else. Appreciate your heroes but don’t copy them.

That's what I have come to appreciate about Bruce Lee.

© 2018 Jamal Smith


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