Simon Biles and Why Anxiety is Killing Us
The biggest story coming out of the Tokyo Olympics is not about competition, but its absence. Simon Biles was arguably the biggest Olympic star in the world going into the 32nd Olympiad. NBC, which bets billions of dollars on the games, endlessly promoted her as the star to watch as the world congregated in Japan a year late.
Then, something extraordinary happened. Simon Biles, feeling jittery and not herself, decided not to compete after a shaky performance in the Team all around competition. She explained that she had lost a sense of orientation and could greatly harm herself if she continued to attempt summersaulting in the air.
She was pilloried by people like Piers Morgan, who called her a quitter. He wrote, “There’s nothing heroic or brave about quitting because you’re not having ‘fun’—you let down your team-mates, your fans and your country.”
That is the kind of ruthlessness you can expect when you stop entertaining the circus.
If there is one unspoken message heard by all young people today, it is not the message of the Bible that all are created in the image of God and therefore have infinite worth. No, it’s the exact opposite that is communicated. The message is that you are born unlovable. You are plain and ordinary. And only if you win a gold medal, make a billion dollars on an internet start-up, are a beautiful model, or stand out in some other superlative way, will you be special.
IF THERE IS ONE UNSPOKEN MESSAGE HEARD BY ALL YOUNG PEOPLE TODAY, IT IS NOT THE MESSAGE OF THE BIBLE THAT ALL ARE CREATED IN THE IMAGE OF GOD AND THEREFORE HAVE INFINITE WORTH.
It’s a soul-destroying message that is ruining the world and greatly accelerating the decline of mental health.
If there is one great tragic outcome of the decline of religion in the Western world, it is the silencing of religion’s most important message: that every human being is of infinite value. That whispered message of religion used to, at least, balance out the cacophony of noise coming from Western values that celebrate only wealth, fame and power, thereby debasing all of us into circus animals trained to perform.
From childhood, we are led to believe that unless we get into an Ivy-League school we’re nothing. Unless we’re really thin and attractive, we’re nothing. Unless we have—at least!—tens of thousands of followers, we’re nothing.
Last week, another teenager threw himself off New York’s newest high-rise tourism monument at Hudson Yards in Manhattan. This is how the New York Times described the tragedy:
“Just two months after the Vessel, a honeycomb-like spiral of staircases in Hudson Yards, reopened with design changes meant to lower the risk of suicides, a 14-year-old boy died by suicide there on Thursday afternoon, the police said. The death, which was the fourth suicide at the tourist attraction in a year and a half, angered community members who have repeatedly called on developers to build higher barriers on the walkways and raised questions about the effectiveness of the structure’s suicide-prevention methods.”
We take as a given that when New York City constructs new buildings, it must take into account, from the outset, the reality that people are going to hurl themselves off them, especially teenagers. I see this every time I cross from New Jersey into New York on a bike across the George Washington Bridge, the world’s busiest. The views into the Manhattan skyline used to be gorgeous. But now they are obscured by ugly netting designed to stop broken and forlorn souls who have given up on life from casting themselves into the Hudson River below.
But along with these precautions, why aren’t we getting to the root causes of this pandemic of Western depression that is exacerbated by the ongoing chorus of worthlessness without achievement?
Enter Simon Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, who decided that she loves the sport but she won’t destroy herself just to cater to the fans, TV, and the endless quest for medals. There is nothing wrong with competition. Indeed, it is the very engine of capitalism and is responsible for the West’s great wealth. But there is something wrong with soulless competition, which says that without a gold medal one is little more than the Tin Man from the “Wizard of Oz,” lacking heart and comprised of worthless metal.
On the night that I turned 40, I stayed awake waiting for “it” to hit me like a freight train. The “it” was the promised wisdom from the words of the Sages: At 40 a man becomes wise.
I had thought myself smart but not wise, and I knew the famous Jewish saying about the difference between the two: the smart man can extricate himself from a situation into which the wise man would never have gotten himself into in the first place.
I wanted to be wise. I wanted the great secret of life, the nugget of wisdom that was going to make it all better—the granule of knowledge passed on from the ancients that would make life simple, smooth and effortless. I wanted the esoteric secret that renders life seamless, bereft of challenge and struggle.
It did not come to me that night, nor that year, nor the next. I was sorely disappointed. I felt cheated. I told my wife that the wisdom did not arrive, that I still did not have the answers to life’s great questions. Life, for me, was still a struggle.
But a few years later it came to me. The pinnacle of wisdom is to know that you are born worthy, that there is nothing you can accomplish that will ever be larger than being God’s child. That success in finance, fame or sports should never be anything more than an authentic desire to develop your potential and contribute to the world around you and a cause larger than you.
THE PINNACLE OF WISDOM IS TO KNOW THAT YOU ARE BORN WORTHY, THAT THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH THAT WILL EVER BE LARGER THAN BEING GOD’S CHILD.
But it should never be out of desire to prove yourself, which will only place you into the rat race, guaranteeing not satisfaction but lifelong misery, regardless of achievement. This great lesson is what Biles demonstrated at the Olympics. She did not quit on her team and fly, sullen, back to the United States. No. She withdrew from competition because she decided that if she was experiencing a mental or emotional crisis, she still mattered. She had nothing more to prove. And now she would cheer on her teammates from the sidelines and never abandon them.
We parents must take this lesson to heart and make our children feel that even without As in the classroom or a trophy from school sports, they still matter—infinitely. We have to stop making our children feel that they are unloved unless they “succeed.”
A few years ago I called my daughter who was studying at Seminary in Israel and said. “Baby girl, if I found a genie in a bottle on a beach who would give me unlimited power to change anything in the world, I wouldn’t change a single thing about you,” I told her.
Our children so often hear the opposite message. That we love them but we want to modify things about them. That they’re great kids, but Harvard is calling. That they’re worthy, but they can always be more deserving.
Once, one of my children’s teachers called to complain that our son was speaking during class. The teacher asked me to reprimand him. I called my son into my office. “Do you know why I want to speak to you?” My son responded, “Yes, because the teacher called to complain about me and said I wasn’t behaving in class.”
“That’s not right,” I said. “I called you into my office to tell you that I love you. That I don’t say it enough. That you’re the most amazing son and you give me endless pride. That no matter what you do I will always love you … And by the way, don’t interrupt your teacher in class.”
Go home and tell your wives how wonderful they are. Tell your husbands how much you cherish them. Make them feel valued and appreciated. Give them your attention and limitless affection. Honor and visit your parents. Love and treasure your grandparents.
Let us never allow loss to be our teacher. Let us learn to love and laugh not because life is short, but rather because it is infinitely precious.