Another Week Ends

Simone Biles’ Heroism, Olympian Psychology, Dog Love, Self-Care, and the Cool, Feminist Virgin

CJ Green / 7.30.21

1. Simone Biles! Simone Biles! This week, the six-time Olympic medalist abruptly exited the competition floor, making history and setting in motion a tsunami of press freakout. Before all this she had received a personalized Twitter emoji (a goat, for the GOAT), and to many a fan, it seemed as if the Tokyo Games were “her Olympics.” That she would succeed seemed beyond question. Then she walked offscreen, and the world realized the Greatest Of All Time was merely human — 24 years old, in fact. In the Guardian, Andrew Lawrence analyzed it this way:

… the particular burden for Biles – the star of the Tokyo Olympics alongside Naomi Osaka – is Sisyphean. She’s supposed to stay great and top herself, too. It’s one thing to embrace that challenge when you are setting the bar for yourself and then clearing it in a leotard emblazoned with a rhinestone goat on your back. But it’s quite another for NBC’s Hoda Kotb to ask in an interview, “Are you beatable?” and then twist her face into a beseeching smile before answering the question herself. “If I had a vote,” said Kotb, “I would say. No girl, you are not beatable.” …

Really, Too Much Pressure could well stand as the unifying theme for a Games that has already seen losses for Osaka, taekwondo star Jade Jones and the once invincible US men’s basketball team. What’s more, we just saw Osaka take a break from tennis for her mental wellness, and we were introduced to the phrase “overtraining syndrome” last month as Simone Manuel clawed to make the Olympic cut for the US swimming team.

We expect our heroes to be perfect. So it’s to Biles’s immense credit that when she wasn’t feeling up to her GOAT status, she took a step back – despite the world clamouring for her gravity-defying moves. She chose to focus on herself again even if that meant – gasp – defeat in what are almost certainly her last Olympics. Biles showed us she is only human. And we would do well to remember that even as her aura of infallibility suggests otherwise.

@worry__lines

Defeat, surrender, failure: if these words are taboo for Olympians, they are just as much so for Americans generally. You don’t have to be an Olympian to struggle with Too Much Pressure, but it seems hard to imagine an Olympian not struggling with it. Consider Michael Phelps’s documentary, The Weight of Gold, and his pleading that athletes be treated “with humanity.” (Or, now that I think about it, R-J Heijmen’s article, The Agony of Getting Everything You Wanted.) Take it from Biles herself, who recently posted on Instagram:

“I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The olympics is no joke!”

Really, though. Recall Kelly Catlin, the Olympic cyclist who died in 2019 to suicide. Catlin’s sister tucked this note into her coffin: “Kelly, if I could trade my life for yours, I would. I love you without all your accomplishments.” Praise God Biles survived long enough to quit.

the outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.

— Simone Biles (@Simone_Biles) July 29, 2021

For those of us who feel, in our own little lives, Too Much Pressure, this is a message of good news. For some, though, it may also be scary; this is probably the case for Americans who responded negatively to Biles’ decision. To be loved and admired independent of your accomplishments? It poses a threat to a worldview that so many of us have bought into, that only through perseverance and work should one receive grace. As Carrie Willard once wrote, “Do these accomplishments count for anything? If we’re not getting credit or keeping score, then why do we bother? Is anybody even noticing?”

2. Along these lines, Joe Pinsker contributed an exceptional piece to the Atlantic about the psychology of Olympians. He points out that silver medalists, despite having trounced “every competitor on Earth but one,” can still feel acute, lasting disappointment.

…in some cases, the emotions of competition can stay raw for a long time: Abel Kiviat, an American who led the 1,500-meter race at the 1912 Olympics until another runner overtook him by surprise eight meters from the finish line, told an interviewer decades later, “I wake up sometimes and say, ‘What the heck happened to me?’” He was 91 at the time of the interview, some 70 years removed from the race.

The sneaky Brit who beat Kiviat by one-tenth of a second was surely thrilled, but winning a gold medal presents its own distinct set of challenges. Even being the greatest in the world doesn’t guarantee lasting contentment. Because of what researchers call “hedonic adaptation,” your happiness eventually tends to revert to a baseline level after a good (or bad) thing happens to you. …

The decorated American swimmer Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals in Munich in 1972, articulated this anxiety before his seventh race that year: “If I swim six and win six, I’ll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I’ll be a failure.”

3. Sometimes it feels as if all of life is about the pursuit of an end, the management of expectations. This is the jumping-off point for a fantastic essay at Longreads by Devin Kelly. He writes about sustaining an athletic injury, and the subsequent feeling that “Everything felt like something to be endured rather than loved.”

…sometimes I worry that, regardless of our ironic self-awareness, we lose a little bit of one another each day. I know I’m being sentimental. I’ll be blunt. Each day, we are losing one another. And by one another, I mean: everything. And by everything, I mean: in a world where it sometimes feels we have to jerry rig into our lives both what we love to do and who we love to do it with, where we have to apologize for the excesses of personality that are not the same as the excesses of production, where we have to somehow — I did not know this was possible, tell me if it’s possible — make time, we lose the possibilities of connection that make up so much of the inherent value of a life.

Even that word “connection” has, to me, begun to feel so forced, mechanical. Is there another word for this? What vocabulary did people have before the tech age, for relationships — for finding meaning in loving and being with others? Kelly continues, beautifully,

when you are among people, even and especially the people you love, you don’t get to fashion it your way. And that’s okay. The beauty of people is that you become beholden to the fragility and waywardness of others, just as they are beholden to you. I know this because I have inconvenienced many a friend. I forget every birthday. I’ll take a week to respond to a text message. I used to get sad at parties and make people stand outside with me while I smoked. I don’t know how to drive. Everyone drives me everywhere. Being friends with me is like being friends with a tiny king who hasn’t found his kingdom.

4. In own my life, the tiny kings tend to bark. At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, in my neighborhood, there is a dog barking at nearly every hour of the day, even, my God, 2am. It may be the senile pooch next-door, or the surly mutts up the hill, or the yip-sters across the street, but it sometimes feels as if the neighborhood was built for the dogs. According to Amanda Mull at the Atlantic (a dog lover herself), some research estimates that today, half of Millennials own a dog. To me, this seems low. But even though I am a cat person (and more than that, a human person), it’s clear that dogs serve a greater, dare I say priestly role in modern life. Mull confesses:

I would have denied it at the time, but I got a dog because I was frustrated with everything else. … This particular Millennial sob story is familiar by now: Thanks to wealth inequality and wage stagnation and rising housing and child-care costs and student loans and all the rest, we’re the first generation to do worse than our parents. People like me, who grew up middle-class, don’t tend to suffer the most severe economic fallout. But the existential crisis provoked by these changes can still feel acute. All your life, you were told that if you worked to follow a particular path, you would be rewarded. Then the path was bulldozed to make room for luxury condos.  

When I adopted Midge, I had no clear view of a future beyond my one-bedroom apartment, let alone a future involving a family of my own, and I still don’t. As I looked around for an opening through which to push my life forward, the gap that was available to me was roughly the size of a hefty chihuahua. Dogs are, for some of us, a perfect balm for purgatorial anxieties. If you have time and care to give, they love freely, they put you on a schedule, they direct your attention and affection and idle thoughts toward something outside yourself. The desire to turn outward and spend energy nurturing others is a mark of emotional maturity, but that nurturing needs a vessel.

People without kids adopt pets not only as a dry run for eventual children but for lots of other reasons, too, including as an outlet for caring impulses that have nothing to do with parenthood. They also lavish their dogs with privileges that, in America, have historically been reserved for other people: Dogs now sleep in the same bed as their humans at night; they have birthday parties; they go see their friends at day care.

In a world where self-care is so prioritized it becomes burdensome, pets require you to care for them, not you. I especially love that in Mull’s eyes, a pet is “a companion animal that plays no functional role in a household.” A pet is not a machine, operating for the purposes of streamlining your life. More often than not, it’s chaos. Most dogs I know are bad. They know their commands, and listen about 30% of the time. Into the lives of otherwise overworked, burned-out utilitarians, pets bring play — and in many ways, grace.

5. For humor, Ginny Hogan, at the New Yorker, compiled a list of “puzzling situations” in which various self-care objectives collide. For example:

You deserve a trip to Hawaii. Unfortunately, you can’t afford it. Should you open an offshore account to evade paying taxes, so that you can save up for the trip next year? Crunching numbers is stressful, but offshore — that’s like a relaxing beach, right?

Hogan (what a week!) also contributed to McSweeney’s, “The Worst They Can Say Is No” — this one escalates quickly. And a little satire from Flexx Mag: “Woman Buys Plants To Cope With Depression, Anxiety And Hit And Run She Just Committed.”

“I bought a variety of plants because each one has a different healing property. Aloe plants can help ease anxiety, ferns are good for depression, and Chamomile plants help me forget that the cyclist was screaming ‘Wait! Please don’t leave me here!’” said Rich while drawing her blackout blinds midday.

6. Have you spied any recent apparitions of Mary? Whitney Bauck, at RNS, has. Whether on a pendant worn by Bad Bunny or a designer coat on Lil Nas X, “wearing Mary” is “unexpected.” More than that, though, she also symbolizes what we value today — and also what we need, ie nurturing, compassion, faithfulness. In addition to pop stars (who, per Madonna, have long made use of the mother of Jesus), she’s been gaining traction for Protestants, too. Bauck explains:

Brenda Equihua

She’s treated as a feminist beacon, her likeness appearing alongside that of Frida Kahlo, Joan of Arc and Ruth Bader Ginsburg … But for all her trendiness, what makes Mary an appealing figure today is what has made her popular for 2,000 years: For all her connections to divine power, she has a lot in common with people who often get overlooked.

Ben Wildflower is a mail carrier by day and artist in his off hours. In 2017, he made a woodcut that showed Mary, her fist raised over her head, feet resting on a skull and a serpent … In a circle around Wildflower’s image are the words “Fill the hungry. Cast down the mighty. Lift the lowly. Send the rich away.” When he posted it on Instagram, it went viral.

Some critics called the woodcut’s message “un-Christian,” protesting that “God loves everyone.” The taunting language, however, was pulled directly from the Magnificat, the gospel writer Luke’s version of a song attributed to Mary, that from earliest Christian times was seen as so revolutionary public readings of it have been banned in the past. […]

Catholic author and University of California, Berkeley lecturer Kaya Oakes is not surprised by the new attention paid to Mary, noting that her appeal tends to grow when times are hard. “Mary represents this side of God that is nurturing and will stay with you when you’re in pain,” Oakes said. “We’re coming out of this really traumatic phase in world history with the pandemic, and people have needed images of God that were more resonant with that compassionate, rather than judgmental, side of the divine.”

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