On my way into work on Monday, I was somewhat confused by the unexpected moment that had taken place the day before: Tiger Woods won the Masters, his first major tournament in more than a decade. But what surprised me wasn’t his victory, but how collectively celebrated it was. From Barack Obama to Donald Trump, from Serena Williams to Michael Phelps (even Happy Gilmore joined in), this was not just another sports moment; it felt like something more.
Two leaders of the free world praising Woods seemed improbable 10 years ago. I still recall the morning of my 21st birthday — November 27, 2009 — watching the news coverage of Woods, arguably the world’s most dominant athlete at the time, driving his car into a tree near his home before dawn. It spiraled from there. The fallout uncovered multiple affairs, resulted in lost sponsorships and admiration, led to speculation of different addictions, and unseated Woods as the figure he had become. The public was more than disappointed; they felt betrayed.
Sunday, for whatever reason, showed we had moved past that. Call it the American fascination with a comeback, the infatuation of celebrity, or the power of forgiveness, it wasn’t just a matter of interest to see if Woods could win again; it was evidently something people had been waiting — and wanting — to see.
But, within a few hours of my Monday morning reflection, there was another moment of unity, albeit a very different one. When news “breaks” on Twitter, it tends to cascade. One tweet that piques your interest suddenly becomes several; I went from thinking “It’s probably not much” to “This is real — Notre-Dame is burning.”
We can read the fact that the first cornerstone was laid in 1163, but it can still be hard to put into context how enduring that is. Here’s an attempt: The Ottoman Empire, one of history’s greatest civilizations, was founded in 1299, and dissolved in 1923. Notre-Dame outlasted it by nearly a century on both ends.
Throughout the afternoon, locals stood in awe and the world watched from afar as one of its icons began seemingly perishing in slow motion. We had not so much taken it for granted as it was still widely appreciated, but just come to think of it as an eternal fixture in our construct of what is supposed to exist; the sun rises in the east, sets in the west, and Notre-Dame stands in Paris. Commonality eludes us more than we would like at present, but losing something that was, at a minimum, commonly recognizable and familiar felt like we were losing something of ourselves.
Global leaders and your Facebook friends shared their feelings, stories and photos of Notre-Dame in the ensuing hours. It’s easy to look back even just a day later and call it a show of self-involved vanity, but as people process something emotional, it’s natural to relate it to yourself to express why it means something to you. In that spirit, to share my own, one of my fondest memories during my year in Europe was a solo trip to Paris. I distinctly remember it was dusk as I walked out of Notre-Dame, crossed the Petit Pont on the left, and stumbled upon a bookstore called Shakespeare and Company.
While there, I bought a copy of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as it is titled in English translations. Hugo’s original version in French is simply Notre-Dame de Paris; to him, the protagonist was the church itself, not any individual character (I suppose non-French audiences needed a more gripping title). As I read the book in the following weeks, there’s a chapter where Hugo dedicates dozens of pages to solely describing the cathedral. Not as a backdrop to the plot as its unfolding, but simply to share its beauty, from its statues to its stained-glass windows to how the light reflects the shadows. While beautifully written, I felt it was a bit of an overkill from Hugo at time, and I skimmed the final pages of that section. Today, I’m thankful that chapter exists.
Back in present day, it felt as if we had already braced ourselves for the worst, so any positive news was welcomed. As the night went on in Paris, we learned that miraculously much of the structure was still intact. Surely parts of it will not be the same, but we will still be able to recognize what we knew.
I’m not sure what it says about the human condition that these two unrelated events brought such a shared sense of unity. On the surface, they are so dissimilar. One involved man; the other a physical structure. One was in triumph; the other amid ruin. One went from broken to glorious; the other the converse.
Maybe it’s nothing deeper than that, in a climate where we’re increasingly prone to cite our differences and distinguish ourselves as unlike so many around us, people saw a universal truth of humanity in both instances — we’re all inspired by and strive for greatness but are acutely aware that it can also disappear with little notice. Tiger experienced that 10 years ago; Notre-Dame nearly experienced it yesterday. It pains us to see greatness robbed, whether it’s self-inflicted or not, but are always hopeful and joyed to see it rebuilt. Tiger experienced it Sunday; Notre-Dame will experience it again too.