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I’ve been training for the Olympics coverage by reading former rower Silken Laumann’s autobiography, Unsinkable. It starts, like many such books, with her moment of triumph: on the podium at the 1992 Games less than three months after a vicious leg injury that would’ve stopped any other mortal.
Then 100 pages in, instead of backtracking to recount her happy tale to the top, she reverses course to self-doubt. She’s become an in-demand motivational speaker but feels “increasingly inauthentic” and experiences “periods of fury and self-loathing.” This puts her book in a smaller category, including Jimmy Piersall’s 1957 Fear Strikes Out, on his battles with mental illness — when that was virtually unmentionable in sports contexts — due to an abusive and undoubtedly loving father. The finest, in my view, is Andre Agassi’s Open: how he always hated tennis, but since it was equivalent to who he was, quitting wasn’t an option. The best he could do was wrestle with it, finding not peace but occasional moments of truce.
Laumann is stunningly honest about the source: her narcissistic, hostile, undermining mother, who eventually left (she doesn’t say, abandoned) the family. She threatened to gas her kids to death, in placid Mississauga. Laumann slept with her bedroom window open. The three kids made plans to escape. So the drive to win was a drive to prove her worth, since her mom hadn’t provided every kid’s birthright: assurance that they’re inherently worthy.
Laumann’s family, minus a sibling, have written a touching letter of rebuttal including, as point four, “We love Silken,” which wasn’t in question. It’s just that love is not enough, as Holocaust survivor Bruno Bettelheim wrote. Kids also need respect and it’s odd how often the two exist separately. Those early deficits are hard to overcome. I once asked the wisest, kindest man I knew if I’d ever transcend my rage toward my parents. He said simply, “I never have.”
And yet, I’d say, her brave plunge into hard, real life, doesn’t conclude satisfyingly perhaps because she slides back into sports metaphors. Those work fine in cases like business, war or politics. It’s so clear: you cross the finish line first and you win. The place they work less well is life. But you may be locked into them once motivational speaking becomes your job — or, later, life coaching.
Coaching life just isn’t enough like coaching rowing, as her own book, I’d say, proves. “Now it’s time for healing,” she writes, in life coach mode. But life involves a different kind of healing than she did after her 1992 wound. It may be more useful (and therapeutic) to say: Now it’s time to give up on healing and just get on with it as best we can. That’s clearly what Freud thought. He wrote, late in his own life, “We must submit to the superiority of the powers that defeat our efforts.”
But how’d that go down with people who pay to hear your motivational talks, and whom you count on to recommend you for future gigs? It’s tempting to be a bit too tidy in formulations like “It’s taken years for me to realize that my parents’ journeys are different from mine.” It’s too like the way your rowing coach charted your route to recovery and triumph in short, doable stages. It also makes life sound like a story unfolding — another dicey metaphor. No one ever knows what their story is until the ending is in and by then it may work for others but you’re gone so it’s not a useful image for the person being “told.”
I felt awful for Peyton Manning after last Sunday’s Super Bowl. Everyone did. His “story” needed a win but that should be basically irrelevant to his life.
I’m not even sure there’s such a thing as motive, out there in life. We can think we have them, but often you achieve your goals and feel utter discontent. What’s with that? Either the motive was false or there are no motives, only instincts, reactions, feelings — that’s also what Freud thought, and Nietzsche.
Imagine a motivational speaker who denounced it all: not just success and winning but metaphor and motive itself. I’d sign up for that.
This article was first published in the Toronto Star.