If you’ve followed the Olympic coverage for these 2022 games, particularly the women’s alpine ski competition, you’re likely caught up on the tragically underwhelming results of skiing’s brightest star: Mikaela Shiffrin. Within a year of both Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles withdrawing from their respective competitions due to prioritization of their mental health, there appears to be a theme emerging at the pointy end of athletic achievement. In this article in the Washington Post, columnist Barry Svrluga writes: “The skiing isn’t the issue. Handling the circumstances is. We are at that murky point in the Olympics again, one where it’s appropriate to question what we ask of our athletes.”
Throughout history, there have been athletes that have been celebrated for their single-minded focus and ability to compartmentalize what happens on and off the court. Michael Jordan’s flu game comes to mind. Or Tiger Woods’s rise to unprecedented prominence, all while his familial and personal relationships disintegrated behind the scenes. These athletes will always be appropriately celebrated for their achievements, and they will also be the only ones who get to decide if it was worth it. In the 10-part docu-series “The Last Dance,” which choreographs the rise and successive dynasty of the 1990s Chicago Bulls, Jordan seems to imply that indeed, it was absolutely worth it, and also that no one was fully aware of what it took to be Michael Jordan. I eagerly await the 10-part docu-series in which Tiger Woods artfully encapsulates his own equally nuanced response about the give-and-take of high end achievement.
Throughout history, there have also always been athletes that have handled pressure better than other athletes. Some athletes are known for having “ice in their veins” and some athletes are well, Billy Buckner – the Red Sox first baseman whose entire legacy is ensconced around his 10th inning error in game 6 of the 1986 World Series, when he allowed a routine ground ball to go – say it with me – right through his legs. (Shout out to my Yankee-fan husband.)
And isn’t this, after all, part of the deal with sports? Some people win and some people lose. Sometimes you do everything you can and the circumstances are simply unlucky. Sometimes it just so happens that your particular event coincides with unfortunately timed circumstances that either draw your attention, or your physical presence away from the task at hand. The best teams and the best athletes don’t always win. As the expression goes: that’s why they play the game.
The assessments of Shiffrin’s disenchanting Olympic performances, especially compared to her sterling resume, have elicited questions regarding her impending legacy. If we define legacy through the implied lens of outward assessment based on achievement acquisition, which has almost as much to do with luck and circumstance as it does with skill, isn’t that a rather depressing, if not nihilistic measure of our lives? And do we really care so much about what other people think of us that we’re spending our exquisitely brief earthly existence attempting to control the narrative after we die?
When I die, I hope to be doing far more interesting things like surfing on clouds or playing in an Angels-and-Ghosts kickball league. And if you too hold a vision of the afterlife as a sort of house party in the clouds where everyone is simultaneously getting everything that they want without any deleterious effects to anyone else, then consider this my whole-hearted invitation to prioritize something more meaningful than legacy and achievement while we’re here enjoying this achingly short experience of living.
In her book, Cassandra Speaks, Elizabeth Lesser describes a conference she attended in which world religious leaders and international scientists were asked to give a talk on what their legacy would be – what prizes and honors had they received, what accomplishments were they most proud of, and what they most wanted future generations to know them by. When it was author Isabel Allende’s turn to speak, Allende walked up to the podium amongst notable guests such as the Dalai Lama and began her response with, “What would I care about legacy? Legacy is a penis word.”
Allende continued on to elaborate upon the need for a reevaluation of our priorities from hoarding money, power, and/or fame to a reformed system that cares for the needs of the whole – and that the actual “P” word she had intended was patriarchy.
When Mikaela Shiffrin was prompted on what she thought may be the underlying cause of these curious alpine blunders, she said, “Probably better to ask some psychologist about that. Honestly, I’m at a loss.” So naturally, as a self-identified psychologist, which is a title that stands in stark opposition to one such as “accredited psychologist,” I offer my most heartfelt attempt at helping us bridge the divide in our own lives.
As much as we must dare to see our own greatness reflected back to us through the meticulously crafted, herculean prowess of Olympians, it is equally important to see ourselves in the opposite, which is not ineptitude, but humanity. We must endeavor to integrate the full spectrum of our radiant incarnation: how we’re thick-skinned, rugged task-masters on the outside, and also soft and gooey on the inside, much like skittles, tootsie pops, or those small chocolate bottles filled with liquor. The point is, our soft gooey insides often get neglected in the solitary pursuit of accolades. And couldn’t there be an equally bold, more artfully imagined and enchanting way to pursue our wildest dreams? Or at the very least, can we all agree to do something even more courageous: cultivate our own particular best practices for relieving some of this godforsaken pressure? No matter your particular religious or secular identification with the afterlife, this will all come to an end one day. When it does, I’d like to imagine my obituary reading something along the lines of: “Here lies Laura Marcoux, who put forth a reasonable and appropriate amount of effort and also, unmistakably, had a great time doing it.” And then, after a respectful amount of time has passed, people will mostly forget about me, and I’ll be busy concerning myself with more pressing matters, like how to pitch a curveball to a headless poltergeist. Or how to peg a ghost with an inflated rubber sphere. Or how keep my metaphysical head in the game so that when my team of all-star angels manufactures a 3 run lead heading into the 10th inning of the Galaxy Series, I’m not too caught up in worrying about the outcome to let the ball go – say it with me – right through my legs.
By: a Self-Identified Psychologist, which, as noted, is very different from an actual accredited Psychologist