Simone Biles, Joey Julius, Jim Thorpe and Mental Strength

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Simone Biles, arguably the best female US gymnast ever, decided to quit the competition at the Tokyo Olympics.  This decision was as celebrated as if she had won gold and that caused some conservative friends to protest.  The bulk of the criticism having to do with the glowing coverage of this choice.  But then there was a lot that was aimed at her personally, calling her a deserter, “an entitled, weak, brat,” and part of the “participation trophy” behavior. 

While I won’t call what she did stunning or brave, I will also withhold any sort of hard judgment concerning her.  Maybe it was the right decision?  If she isn’t feeling up to the task then it might be good to allow the next one up to fill the spot on the team?

Given that it was leaked, back in 2016, that Biles uses Adderall, a common stimulant used to treat ADHD, and banned by the Olympics, it is little wonder she is out of sorts.  That’s a strong drug, in the methylamphetamine class, and going off of it could severely hamper a person mentally.  Many people (conservatives, in particular) do not understand how much their mood and level of ambition are predetermined.  During my brief stint using Adderall, I learned a lot about how easy it is to get things done when you have complete focus  The withdrawal is something fierce too.  For me it left a dead inside, can’t get out of my own way, feeling when in withdrawal. 

So, rather than an indictment of Biles, this may be a concern about how we deal with life in the United States.  Whereas previous generations and most people in the world cope without drugs, the US is very drug dependent.   The US, in fact, is the world leader in prescription drug usage.  The US produces and uses about 85% of the world’s methylphenidate.  Rather than overcome by internal means, learning coping skills, or building mental strength by simply getting up and after it, we are relying on the take a little pill solution to problems.

Then again, we can’t know if Biles would ever be competing at this level without Adderall.  But we do know that she has had many things to overcome.  She has worked very hard to get to where she is.  She has endured a childhood of hunger and sexual abuse too.  This is why I’m not going to join anyone in calling her weak or anything else.  Unless someone has competed at the highest levels of gymnastics and knows a little of the commitment and strength it takes, then it may be best to leave judgment to those who have been there and done that.

That said, the question of whether we are getting mentally weaker is worth looking into, but first another athlete’s story…

A hard-hitting and short career

Joey Julius stormed onto the college football scene with his big boot and his hit stick tackles. 

Kickers are not generally known for their toughness.  It is typical that they hang back and play safety on the kick coverage.  It is expected that they might try to run the play out of bounds or go for a feeble attempt at the runner’s ankles.

Moment before impact

But that wasn’t Julius.  He was a big boy, 260lbs, and very quickly became a Penn State fan favorite with his ferocious coverage team collusions.  He was a walk-on and seemed to be ready to entertain for years to come.  Yet, right as his fame rose, he disappeared.

It certainly was disappointing for me, as a fan, to see this exciting and unique player off of the roster. And, of course, I had to ask why. For me being able to start for a college football team would be an amazing privilege and never something I would pass up. However, as one who saw my own cousin, a 6′-8″ 320lb lineman, confident as he was going in, get bogged down with injuries and the pressure of college life, end up off the team after one season, I understood that it isn’t an easy thing to be an athlete at that level.

As it turns out, Julius, despite his new celebrity, still struggled with body image issues and binge eating disorder. For all his success on the field, and the acceptance it brought, he felt he was not as he was supposed to be, was overcome by anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.

As for toughness?

I know for certain, at least at my own size and strength, I wouldn’t run full speed into a division one athlete. So it would be hard to call Julius a weakling. As with Biles dropping out, their fame and athletic pursuits, our want of entertainment, all come secondary to their well-being and only they know what is right for them.

I wish him well.

My own story of quitting early…

I was picked to be on the church council late last year.  My congregation is small, yet a serious responsibility and, in my mind, an honor.  I had planned to serve out my full-term and was even a little excited.  It was the first time I would serve in a leadership position.  I had not been so much as a youth officer in my old denomination and it did bother me a little.  That said, I’ve never sought out mundane administrative duties, so being overlooked for the role wasn’t that big of a deal either.  Nevertheless, I took the reminders of Father Seraphim to heart, that we were to be an example to the rest of the church, and that would eventually lead to me resigning my post.

I would love to see myself as being mentally strong and might be in some regards.  However, the death of Uriah had taken an emotional toll and I really was not feeling up to the task of being a council member.  I was simply not putting in the kind of energy that I thought would be right for the position and started to have second thoughts after the first couple of meetings.  So I shared these thoughts privately with sub-deacon Anthony, who graciously responded, but then decided to continue the course.  However, that resolve did not last long.  The next meeting, for whatever reason, I was just feeling very discombobulated and even angry, it didn’t make any sense.  It was at that point that I decided to send Father a message to ask if it was okay to resign and he accepted.

It was embarrassing to me. 

As Jesus said, concerning discipleship:

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’  “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

(Luke 14:28-33 NIV)

Yes, perhaps the death, after a year hoping for a miracle, presented an extenuating circumstance.  But then everyone on the council has their own crap to deal with and some of them possibly more than me.  With a combination of perfectionism with some laziness, I had taken the easy way out.  Sure, it was good that I took my job seriously enough that underperformance was an issue.  And I knew when I agreed to the position that I wasn’t going to be a flawless participant.  Furthermore, I don’t quit my day job because of a bad day or even months of struggle.  So maybe it was all simply an excuse as soon as things got tough? 

I do know this, my replacement on council is an elderly fellow who probably should be enjoying his retirement rather than pick up the pieces for this me-first generation.

Is weakness a choice?

There is a character issue to be considered.  I’m the guy who can show up to work, in absolute agony, head ready to explode from an infected tooth, because someone has to do the job. 

Diminished capabilities or not, I understand that my participation in the group effort makes a difference and also that my paycheck depends on showing up.  In other words, maybe my quitting council was a sort of self-indulgence, or willing fragility, rather than an absolute reflection of my true ability to complete the task?

Sounds harsh. 

But then it is part and parcel of my generation’s ‘authenticity’ at all costs mindset.  We cast this as being strength, the “you do you” mantra is repeated often.  Still, it is also likely costing our greater potential when we choose to quit because of feelings of inadequacy or our lack of mental fortitude.  The idea of “fake it until you make it” does not exist because other generations had it easier than we do.  This learned helplessness, while comfortable, is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy and keeps many people from ever reaching their full potential.

The name Jim Thorpe comes to mind. This Olympic athlete, the first of Native American heritage to win gold, was an incredible story of mental toughness. While in competition, having had his shoes stolen, he found a mismatched pair of shoes in the garbage—used an extra sock on one foot to make it work—and went on to win a couple of gold metals in this hasty arrangement. This is a man who had every excuse to give up. Have you ever try to run, let alone compete at the highest level, in shoes that don’t fit?

The true GOAT

It would be worthwhile to read up on Thorpe, compare what he endured to the stories of Biles, Julius, and my own, then draw some conclusions. Perhaps the reality is that we could and we simply didn’t? In other words, we made a choice, picked an easier path, and missed an opportunity for growth?

My grittier moments…

I’ve had many setbacks in my life. I started struggling for breath, as a preemie, was a slow developer physically and late bloomer otherwise. Opportunities were often behind me before I even realized I should be seeking them.

I don’t recall, it was relayed to me, but apparently an elementary school teacher had told my mom about an incident, during a math test, where I jumped up beside my desk and screamed. Why that shy child would make such an outburst? Well, probably because I was so frustrated, trying so hard to focus, full of anxiety, and was barely able to do the work.

Obviously, like my eldest sister who blazed her path, I was driven. But, unlike my sibling, who could put her mind to something and do it, I would be overcome with my perfectionism and eventually defeated in various pursuits by my fear and doubt. The most crushing of those being my inability to pull myself together when things became uncertain in romantic hopes.

That’s not to say that my sheer will and determination gained me nothing. As a 112lb senior, I started and finished a season of football. I’ve comeback, on a couple of occasions, from injuries that might have caused some to put an end to their fitness regime. I had even walked in faith, against the odds, to pursue the impossibly, to the point that I became mentally ill and had nothing left to give. I’m still here.

At times I hated whatever made me want to keep going despite these setbacks. My mind, like Job’s wife, telling me “curse God and die.”

Fortunately, unlike many in this age that loves victimhood, I had a mom who would not let me slack off or quit. Sure, she could never do the work for me. But she could have easily nurtured me to death by catering to her poor Joel. I was a trouble child, especially as a teen, a tortured soul, someone always stuck in the mud, spinning his wheels as dreams sped away and vanished over the horizon. I didn’t actually know how to grow up or be independent. I would still be living at home had my mom allowed it. She didn’t.

Nobody is born ready to soar, not even a bird!

The idea of a home mortgage had terrified me. Could I make the payments? What if I could not pay it back? It was too much for me to do voluntarily, without that push, because I didn’t have the mental strength. And yet, when the time came, when I finally did sign the papers, not only did I pay off the loan, I actually paid it off in half of the time!

Incidentally, it was this that made me more confident when facing the impossibly, that Mennonite female interest to end all, and also totally upended me when she said, “you’re thirty years old living in Milton.” In one sentence she had destroyed the meaning of the entire struggle up to that point.

Nevertheless, even then, when I stopped eating and holed up in that cracker box house, wishing to die. It was my parents, especially my mom, who continued to push. Yes, there was comfort and consolation, time given for me to grieve, rest and collect myself again, yet never coddling or agreement with my despair.

It is absolutely terrifying for me to imagine what I may have become had I quit the first time things required digging deeper. I mean, I would have likely died in that plexiglass box—the isolette—had I not been a fighter, had my physician uncle given up, etc.

Not to mention had my mom decided pregnancy was too much for her or my grandparents lacked the commitment of marriage.

Life is tough.

We would not get very far if we make quitting when things don’t go our way into a habit. That is why we should be concerned about the new turn towards making heroes out of those who do not finish. Sure, there are reasons to quit, to avoid injury or whatever, but when it is simply an excuse for not putting forth effort? That’s a problem.

Build strength—Do not coddle weakness

Our culture, sadly, is coddling many to their own detriment. Many young adults live as overgrown children, unfulfilled, because they’re encouraged to be mentally weak and their needs are being provided. By contrast, I’ve seen an Amish toddler herd cows, Chinese toddlers can cook meals, and humans have an amazing ability to rise to the challenge.

It is a sad day when we go from honoring strength, that hard work it requires to achieve greatness, to celebration of weakness. It is basically a suicide pact, a death spiral, and makes thriving impossible. By telling people that they’re unable, that quitting is okay, we are doing them a lifetime of harm. We are currently at a crisis point it is not sustainable to go the direction we are going.

We need more heroes like Jim Thorpe now more than ever. The future of our species depends on it. However, this mental toughness, it doesn’t start (or end) with elite athletes on the world stage. It means having the courage to get up and go again, despite our feelings, and repeat as many times as necessary until we’re able to overcome. There is no pill, no magic solution, only learning not to make excuses and push on.

A Mixed Bag of Medical Results

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Part of my personal myth is that I was a “miracle baby,” spared from a very early demise by the medical intervention of nurses and physicians, including my uncle Elam, a pediatrician, who hand pumped air into my lungs while being transported to Geisinger Medical Center.  

I had been born premature, suffered from a condition called Hyaline Membrane Disease due to my underdeveloped lungs, suffered a collapsed lung due to my hard breathing, and likely would have died without the advanced care that I received.  I was a fighter, for sure, but my survival would depend on the skilled intervention of medical professionals.

My mother would tell me that story and also use it to remind me that God had a special purpose for my life.  But what she didn’t tell me, until much later, is that my early trauma was actually caused by her doctor who induced labor. 

Oopsies.

My Medical Family

My mother had aspired to be a nurse.  Even worked in a nursing home prior to marrying my dad.  But life, including my sister and your’s truly, changed her plans. 

However, as often is the case, these dreams of parents are sometimes fulfilled by the next generation and sometimes double.  Both of my sisters are employed in the medical field and eventually even my mom found her way into a doctor’s office before eventually playing an instrumental role in the opening of Compassion Parochial Clinic.

My own role in all of this was to be my eldest sister Olivia’s first patient.  Using her Fisher Price Medical Bag, she would check and treat my various imaginary ailments, and had her mind set on being a pediatrician like her well-respected uncle.  And, after graduating high school, then acquiring a biology degree, she continued her education at Albert Einstein College of Medicine on Bronx, NY.

In fact, l feel that I may deserve a partial credit for having attended a lecture on the heart.  Although, I may have missed the second half due to a terrible bout of drowsiness and was not the only one sleeping.  Although, as a courtesy, I will not say whether or not my sister had succumbed.

Anyhow, my younger sister Lilian also picked a medical career, eventually became an RN, continued her education, and is now working on her licensing as a midwife.  Her passion is welcoming babies into the world and is someone with a personality well suited for the job.

All of that to say that this exposure causes me to have deep respect those in this profession.  One way to get on my bad list very quickly is to suggest that those in the medical field are only in it for the money and would deliberately keep people sick to cash in.  Sure, there are bad eggs in every profession, some terrible doctors, but my sisters (like many of their colleagues) are there to help people get well.

That said, having family in medicine also removes some of the aura.  My sisters are far more qualified to give opinions on medical issues than I am and yet they also are still human. 

Doctors make mistakes, they’re fallible like the rest of us, with blindspots and bias.  Plus they’re used to having totally ignorant people, who “did their own research,” challenge them on things they’ve spent years of their life studying, and can become tired of answering these inane statements—appear arrogant.

Physician: “Heal Thyself…”

People have very high expectations in regards to modern medicine.  We’re supposed to go to the doctor and be completely healed. 

But the reality is quite different from that.  Once you get past the buzzing technology and laboratory developed chemical cures, the sterile well lit halls of institutions, our actual abilities are still quite primitive.  Science may have given us better bandaid solutions than were available to our ancestors, yet there really aren’t that many miracles to be had.

My own expectations have lowered considerably after two injuries requiring expert examinations.  

The first, diagnosed as Degenerative Disc Disease, brought me to the office of the renowned neurosurgeon, Dr. Rajjoub.  I had terrible pain, loss of strength and feeling on my right side, my neck was really bad from what my family doctor saw on the MRI.  My parents, after we waited what seemed hours, finally were escorted into the examination room and were full of anticipation.

Having done our own research, knowing the seriousness of my injury, it was quite certain that I would be under the knife soon.  They would open things up, remove the bad, and fix me up better than new!  

The physician strode into the room.  He looked over the charts and images with intensity and then, without hesitation, “physical therapy” and started to turn towards the door.  Stunned, my mom, speaking for the three of us, our mouths agape, “Wait, what?!?”  It was as if he just told a blind man to rub mud in his eyes and was simply going to leave.  He explained further, telling us about the risks of the procedures, how my neck movement would be limited after, and restated his recommendation.

Dr. Rajjoub was right.  After weeks of therapy and further exercise at home, I was able to regain feeling and the use of my right arm.  Sure, I occasionally have painful flare ups and may need the surgery some day, but the doctor had given me the right answer even if it was not the one that I wanted to hear at the time.  Modern medicine has advanced, yet it is our body that still does most of the healing.

A Comical Contradiction

After tearing my ACL I met with an orthopedic surgeon to discuss the options available.  Still active, I expressed my desire to get back in the game and he responded by recommending surgery.  They grafted a part of my hamstring tendon in where the ACL had been and I spent the next few months becoming good friends with Rob and Bob at Keystone Care Physical Therapy and impressing the old folks there with my vertical leap.

Unfortunately, after a year of intense rehab, I was playing basketball and reinjured the repaired knee.  So I went back to the orthopedic surgeon for a consultation and his advice?  He suggested that maybe I slow down a bit, that I was no spring chicken anymore (a paraphrase) and should probably avoid strenuous activities.  Excuse me?!?  I had thought I went through the surgery and physical therapy so that I could actually use the limb, right???

But that’s typical of a doctor’s advice.  He was trying to minimize the risk of my reinjuring my knee, to cover his own butt, and could I really expect him to say anything otherwise?  To tell me to go full throttle again?  I can understand why he would urge my caution.  And still I can’t deny being disappointed.  My thought had been that this surgery would allow me to pick up where I had left off and instead I got a cease and desist notice.

The Undiagnosed Nightmare

I’ve reconnected with an old school friend.  I rode the bus with him for many years and we shared a first name. 

It is quite astounding, actually, how we got reconnected.  That being a story for another time.  But one thing memorable about this old classmate is how he was always complaining about pain in his feet.  At a younger age I had thought of him as being weak or a whiner.  He had been diagnosed as being flat-footed.  

However, it was a little clearer that there was something more seriously wrong when, in middle school, a fall, after a playful shove in the hall, resulted in a broken hip.

Anyhow, at our one-on-one reunion he would let me in on his the true source of his suffering and something that the medical professionals had missed.  Something that doctors had initially told him was all in his head, that the genetic department of an area research hospital refused to even test,  turned out to be Fabry’s Disease, a rare genetic disorder where the body is unable to produce a particular enzyme, which means the body is unable digest certain proteins, and is a death sentence if not properly treated.

He had gone through hell.  A breeze on his skin felt like torture.  They had treated him with addictive painkillers that basically turned him into a junkie.  And his proper diagnosis came from an uncle who read a story about someone with similar symptoms, a revelation that prompted my friend to demand the diagnostic tests for the genetic disorder and only then did he finally receive the necessary treatment.  The medical system had both failed and saved him.

The Miracle Hoped For…

Then there’s my cousin Uriah.  Nothing, not the most advanced treatment in the world, could save him.  The prognosis was never good, Synovial Sarcoma, but I held on to the hope that some new cure might come along, some miracle might happen, and he would survive.

It was hard to watch.  First after one round of him taking poison, called chemotherapy and the only thing that will keep the corrupted human cells called cancer from growing, they decided that he would need to sacrifice his leg.  This Uriah and his family did everything they could, he received top notch medical care at Walter Reed and elsewhere.  But there was not much that could be done for him.

The limitations of modern medicine is a bitter pill.  And those seeking ‘alternatives’ do not fare any better if diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.  I know many strong-willed individuals, in partial denial of the graveness of their condition, who traveled to places like Mexico for some kind of breakthrough treatment and suffered the same fate.  Better technology may come along soon and yet disease and death is as natural as health and life.

There is a myth, popular in some circles, that if a person eats right and exercises they will be rewarded with long life.  Uriah was one of the most fit and disciplined people I know, there was nothing he could have done better, he was dealt a bad card.

Having Correct Expectations

We see the headlines, “The third-leading cause of death most doctors don’t want you to know about,” discussing medical mistakes, like this one:

“In 2002 James lost his 19-year-old son after he collapsed while running. He had been diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia by a cardiologist a few weeks prior and was released from the hospital with instructions not to drive for 24 hours.

“His death certificate said he died of a heart arrhythmia,” he said, but my son really died as a result of “uninformed, careless, and unethical care by cardiologists.” He explained: “If you have a patient with heart arrhythmias of a certain level and low potassium, you need to replace the potassium, and they did not. And they didn’t tell him he shouldn’t go back to running.” Communication errors, he said, are “unfortunately very common.”

What is left out of this story is that a century ago he would have simply died from the arrhythmia. 

In fact, only half a century ago my great-grandfather died, a middle-aged man, of a heart attack because there were no surgeries widely available. 

So, truly, modern medicine is a victim of it’s own success, things have improved so much from the time when many people died of many diseases, even at a young age, that we now expect perfection.  Our ancestors, not too long ago, would have no treatment options, whereas we demand answers when the treatment fails.

Those who expect too much will be the most sorely disappointed.  Those who expect to be saved from suffering by science will some day be faced with a harsh reality and, likewise, those who believe that there’s a cure for cancer being withheld are equally delusional.  This idea that we have complete control, that there should somehow be a cure for everything, is a product of our success in medicine and also ignorance of what this success actually means.  

Sure, some of us, like my grandpa, may have died on multiple occasions had it not been for medical advancements like Penicillin, prostrate surgery and pacemakers.  But, even now, with the great progress we’ve made, we’re still all eventually going to wear out.  Our bodies have a shelf life and all the intervention in the world isn’t going to do much to change that.  Eat healthy, exercise enough, avoid getting hit by a truck, and you might see eighty years, maybe more if you have good genetics.  But we won’t live forever.

So, before we become too critical, rather than only dwell on the failures, we should look at the advancement and appreciate the success.  Results will always be a mixed bag, even those who have received the very best care, men like Steve Jobs, do not live forever nor will you.  Even Lazarus, brought back to life by Jesus, eventually died.  And my friend, the one with the missed diagnosis, would long ago have joined Lazarus had it not been for modern medicine.