What do I know about performing a vault exercise in gymnastics? Only what I see. From the comfort of a Lazy-Boy recliner, I watch Olympic gymnasts run, dive, propel, spin, flip, land, and with arched backs, raise their arms in masterful accomplishment. When I watched Simone Biles lose her way in mid-air, retreat from a two and one-half twist, land low and lunge forward, I didn’t understand what I was witnessing. When she withdrew from competition, I was in disbelief, disappointed, and confused. What just happened?
It’s easy to get caught up in gold. Gold jewelry, gold coins, gold medals. I create golden images of my wants and desires, not so different from golden idols cast so long ago misguided in understanding what really matters. What’s wrong with silver, or bronze? Nothing. The fact is, in competition as in life, someone wins and someone loses. Trouble is, the expectations of and judgments on winners, our idols, sometimes seems to exceed the weight of all the gold in the world.
Quitting rarely culminates in reward. Walking away is counterintuitive to American culture. When I left the workforce, there were well wishes but no kudos for leaving, and taking my next step into retirement and aging is disconcerting. Unlike a vault or track event on the global Olympic stage, my struggles are private and quiet. There are no tweets, no hype, and no buzz about my well-being. Perfection is not an expectation. I have to go inside myself to find my way. Simone does. Phelps did. We all do. Thankfully, there are people that can help us on our journey if we have the humility and courage to ask for it.
I live with a clinical therapist. I can bounce my confusion off of my husband for perspective, but what I learn generally reinforces what I already know; I am a human being with limitations. Love for what we do and who we are draw us forward, while fear and doubt prompt us to lose our way. We fail, we succeed, we fall down, and we get up. Everyone’s trek through life is different, and most of us never receive a medal for any of it, and yet, we are all judges and are judged.
One of my biggest character defects is piling too much on my plate. At its core, being busy and thinking I can do it all is ego-centric behavior. I become the worst version of myself — tired, resentful, impatient, and short-tempered. There have been times in my life when I would have won gold medals if the Olympic committee had qualified the sport of plate-piling. Instead, I look back and consider the what-if’s; what if I would have taken that day off to kayak, to read a book, or just sit beside my mother and hold her hand, but I’ll pass on hanging those medals of regret around my neck.
If I feel confused as I watch the 2021 Olympics play out inside empty stadiums where athletes don masks in a country whose Covid numbers continue to tick upward — just like mine – I am not alone. I can relate to the struggle to care for my mental health, and although I find it disappointing when I have to say no and walk away, I have to remember that the choice is mine, whatever benefits or consequences result. Maybe the best outcome is clarity.
In women’s gymnastics, there are four medal events: vault, uneven bars, floor, and beam. In high school, hoisting myself onto that long, narrow piece of wood called a “balance” beam scared the hell out of me. My fear was on display as my entire body shook above two unsteady feet moving heel to toe, heel to toe. I would crouch to dismount, white knuckles on a smooth, chalky plank. Maybe I have never been good at balancing myself, for real or metaphorically.
I prayed for Simone Biles. Maybe it was a selfish act because praying for her helped me wade through the hype and my confusion. This past year of pandemic, uncharted territory, delay and disorientation has provided room for many of us to take stock. And, it isn’t over. The real gold of our times is inlaid in acts of tolerance and kindness strengthened by the practice of effort, and our willingness to learn and grow. I know I need the help and support of others even when I am too proud to ask. It’s easy to forget that the world isn’t centered on any one event or person. It isn’t centered on me.
Life is a series of vaults and liftoffs heavy in the possibility of getting lost in mid-air. Seeking balance, understanding our limitations, and asking for help are merit badges that keep us upright and steady. It can be humbling, but bowing our heads to receive those virtuous medallions is golden.