Category Archives: Life

The mental health argument

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This is probably not going to be a popular post.

Over at the Olympics, Simone Biles has withdrawn from the gymnastics team event invoking “mental issues” and everybody is applauding her “courage”. I am confused. Far be it from me to minimize the importance of self-care. I have struggled with mental issues just as much as the next person, and I do understand that, in her particular sport, lack of focus can lead to serious injuries. So it’s not that I don’t understand the gesture. Here is an amazing and hard-working young woman who experienced a low moment and did the rational thing (seeing as her performance was a liability to the team and a risk to her health). Good for her. What I grapple with is the attitude. The glorification.

I’m not familiar with all the details. I’m not throwing stones. Still, I cannot help but wonder: is the mental health mantra becoming too convenient an excuse? A way for professional athletes and other relatively privileged individuals – who have shot to fame and fortune through cut-throat competition and who at other times fully enjoy the perks that come with this lifestyle – to back out whenever things don’t quite go their way or when they feel they are not equal to the challenge? Do they not have a psychologist on the team? Did team USA not swap the Olympic Village for a nice hotel to ensure perfect conditions for their gymnasts? Is that not supposed to give them some kind of edge over the other poor saps?

After all, the Olympics are just as much about team spirit, self-sacrifice and representing one’s country as they are about individual success. My grandfather was a professional footballer who played for the Romanian national team in the 1930s. He played World Cup qualifiers and even the final tournament itself. During one of the really important matches, he was viciously fouled, but continued playing with a broken rib all the way to the end to help out his team. And he is not the only example. We look up to such people not just because they are skilled with the ball or can do elaborate tricks with their bodies. We look up to them for their strength of character as well. We are inspired by their dedication and grit, by their sense of responsibility and loyalty, by their capacity to handle adversity and to bounce back stronger when it really matters.

Or at least, we used to be.

Lately, there seems to be a lot of cherry-picking going on among professional athletes. Naomi Osaka can’t handle one more Roland Garros press conference, but apparently has no problem with the psychological pressures of carrying the Olympic torch and having the eyes of the entire planet on her while she’s doing it. Serena Williams explains away her questionable behavior on court as a feminist stance. A couple of Romanian professional tennis players invoke injuries to avoid going to the Olympics altogether. Are we, as a society, giving people license to self-victimize too easily? And is the mental health argument becoming a little too self-serving?

Are we in the West too spoiled? Too stressed? Not resilient enough? Mentally depleted? Is it a question of individualism vs. collectivism?

What about those Olympians who have been through wars and famine and other types of deadly violence? What about those for whom the spartan conditions in the Olympic Village are an incredible improvement over what they have back home? What about Abebe Bikila, who won a marathon barefoot? How can these people keep it together? How come they are “mentally there”?

Simone Biles is an experienced gymnast with an impressive track record. The history of abuse by the team doctor is truly dreadful, but it did not impair her performance at the previous Olympics, when the scandal was at its peak. (Sadly, she is not the only athlete on an Olympic team to have suffered various types of abuse, especially in gymnastics…) She has been in gruelling competitions before, and she chose to participate in this one as well. She has been called the greatest of all times, a reputation she embraced and seemed to revel in. She is a role model. When she pulls out instead of leading her team to victory, is she simply being human, admitting her limitations, taking time to heal, and giving somebody else a shot at glory – or is she shirking her responsibilities and putting the onus on her less experienced teammates, who now have to step in unexpectedly and shoulder even more of the pressure? Is she a victim? Is she a hero? Both? Neither?

I guess only time will tell.

Meanwhile, former USSR gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, now 46 years old, is participating in her 8th Olympics. She kept training and competing professionally even as her son was battling leukaemia. And Larisa Iordache, a top Romanian gymnast, ended her beam routine in tears with a painful foot injury a couple of days ago, yet continues to bite the bullet, determined to recover, train and compete in Tokyo – both for herself and for the people back home. And this despite the recent death of her mother (one month before the Olympics!), the weighty expectations of 19 million conationals, and the daunting legacy every Romanian gymnast at the Olympic Games will forever be judged against: Nadia Comaneci’s seven perfect 10’s in Montreal in 1976.

(You might also like: https://theconversation.com/the-infantilization-of-western-culture-99556)

P.S. I am certainly NOT suggesting that athletes have a sacred duty to entertain us or to fight for their country at the cost of their health or wellbeing. There are situations when quitting is perfectly justified – the smart option, the only option. What I have a problem with is the generalized celebrations around it. The Olympics is not an all-expenses-paid wellness trip. How we perceive things is culturally contingent. Perhaps so is our perception of what constitutes true greatness and how best to deal with difficult choices. But what we choose to celebrate now has an impact on social and cultural norms going forward. It models future behavior. I am simply questioning whether all this talk of mental health (in the context of superstars who are far from powerless and who, by their own admission, “freak out in a high-stress situation”) does more to destigmatize it, or to trivialize it. And whether giving ourselves permission to be fragile or easily hurt and offended actually makes us become more fragile and more easily offended. We already know from Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s experiments that giving people permission to oppress will turn them into real oppressors…

#olympics #gymnastics #tennis #mentalhealth #society

Children saying scary things

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My daughter (10), elated that she got into the class she wanted and avoided the all-girls class: ‘All-girls classes suck!’

Me, naively: ‘Why?’

My studious 10-year-old: ‘Because they’d be all prissy and there’d be no boys to fall in love with.’

Ladies and gentlemen, the main purpose of public schooling, right there… in case there was ever any doubt.

(And I say this sarcastically, of course, because when the knowledge content has been thinned out and dumbed down beyond recognition, what else is left but socialization…)

The Angler

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He didn’t mind the waiting. In fact, that was the best part. He was there for the wait.

He did have qualms about impaling the worms, though. That much is true. But he’d shrug it off: ‘If I don’t get them, someone else will. Some other animal. Not my fault they were born to be food.’ He’d run the hook through them with great care, covering the whole length of it. With a grand, yet by now mechanical gesture, he’d unleash his reel, let the nylon fly gracefully through the air, lower the lure into the water and wait. He’d settle into his small foldable chair, hunched shoulders, hat pushed back, and wait. Occasionally he would yank the rod, reel it in a bit. Once in a while he’d rub the bristles on his neck or pass his palm pensively across the stubble on his face. And while waiting, he’d take a deep breath, then another. He absolutely loved it.

Some people hate fishing, he thought. They get competitive about it. And then they can’t stand the wait. But that’s where they get it all wrong. You set a target, a goal, and pretty soon it takes over. It runs you. It prods you. You become its instrument. Why put yourself under pressure? Fishing is precisely about taking it in stride. Take it as it comes. And if it doesn’t, then just have yourself a few quiet hours staring at the water. That was why he was there, anyway. No clocks, no schedules, no expectations. No emotional blackmail either. Just pure pleasure. No fish ever came out desperately pleading, ‘You promised to marry me, I’m pregnant!’.

No voices. The fish are all quiet. Here it was just him and the water and the lure bobbing on the surface of it and his thoughts free to glide along. Life on mute, the way he liked it. As mute as fish.

He did throw most of them back in. He kept just enough to justify his hobby, bring something home to the wife. The ones he kept he never watched. He hated to see them suffocate, gasping for air. They reminded him too much of himself. Too much of the hook he’d bitten into: a family, kids, the responsibilities of it all. Sometimes he could tell he’d caught something, but he’d just let them play around in the river a little bit longer with that hook in their mouth, give them the illusion they were still free. Give them a chance to free themselves. If they’d bitten too deep, if they were too damaged, he’d keep them, put them out of their misery, make them into food. If not, he’d simply release them back, with a lesson learned. Can fish learn?

He could, but by now it was too late. He had his little escapades, his early weekend mornings out of the house, all by himself. He enjoyed it all: the river bank, the water flowing, the solitude, the wait. He’d gotten used to telling everybody he was going away to catch some fish. But he knew he was not there for the catching. He knew. He was there for the wait.

The wait. That illusion of freedom, that suspended moment when anything might still happen. Man, fish, earth, water. Cells, the lot of them. Molecules. Life feeding upon itself.

Podge and his book from the sky – A fable

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Once upon a time there was a badger. We’ll call him Podge, because that’s what his friends called him. Podge was an intrepid and adamant little badger and he liked to roam the neighborhood at length, looking for fellow creatures to pester – or to snack on.

On one of his nocturnal foraging trips, Podge went a little further than usual and pretty soon came across an animal he had never seen before. An animal so different from himself.

‘What a strange animal… !’ Podge thought and drew closer. ‘Too large to eat and very funny-looking.’

In fact, this animal was so bizarre that, in the dark, Podge couldn’t really tell which end was the head.

‘Hi,’ he said. ‘My name is Podge and I’m a badger. What are you?’

At first there was no answer, so he tried again.

‘Hi,’ he repeated. ‘My name is Podge and I’m a badger. What are you?’

The strange animal stirred.

‘Why are you talking to my tail?’

‘Oh, sorry,’ Podge said and came trotting around to the other end.

And indeed, upon closer inspection, he was now able to make out a long, thin snout and a pair of ears.

‘I have never seen an animal like you. What are you, exactly?’ Podge asked.

‘What do you mean? I am me. I am who I am. Do you want to be friends?’

‘I guess, but… what are you?’ he insisted.

‘I don’t understand. Why do I have to be something in particular?’

‘Well, we’re all something. We all have to be something.’

‘Why?’

‘Just to know what we are. To know where we belong.’

‘ Well, I may not know what I am, but I still know who I am. I’m me. Isn’t that enough?’

‘But… but all the creatures in the world need to know what they are!’ Podge spluttered.

‘Why?’

‘I’m not exactly sure, but I am very pleased to know what I am and what everything around me is. I know what is food, friend, or foe. It’s easier to play with things when you know what they are.’

‘Hm,’ the other creature said incredulously and walked on, snout to the ground.

‘Aren’t you curious what I am?’

‘You’re someone who calls his friends thing names.’

But Podge didn’t hear.

‘I’m a badger,’ he pronounced proudly and confidently.

‘Says who?’

‘Everyone I know.’

‘Badger,’ muttered the creature. ‘That’s just a sound. It means nothing to me. But if you’re fond of this sound, so be it, you will be the Badger.’

‘And you? What are you?’

‘I already told you. I’m me. Why are you so obsessed with categories?’

Podge went home and found it extremely hard to fall asleep. It bothered him. He did not know where to place this creature he had met. And what should he call it? The following night he went back determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. He packed his sacred book and a flashlight. For hours on end he looked at the creature, looked at himself, then leafed back and forth through his book. It was morning already. The sun was up. He was getting tired. Finally, he exclaimed:

‘I know! I know what you are! You’re an aardvark!’ He was so relieved.

‘You think so?’

‘I know so!’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because my book says so, look!’ he said and pointed to a picture on a page that said “Aardvarks”.

‘And how does the book know I’m an aardvark? Maybe they just had to come up with a name and didn’t know any better.’

‘Oh, no, no, no. Not a chance. This book knows everything there is to know. It’s a magical book. And it’s always right.’

‘Really? How do you know that?’ the aardvark asked again.

‘Well, because this book came to us directly from the sky!’

‘No kidding…’

‘Yes, yes. I found it myself one morning on the forest floor. There was nobody else around, and it’s too heavy for our birds to carry. So, it must have fallen from the sky!’

‘Hm,’ the creature muttered again and tried to sniff out some ants.

‘You eat ants! Perfect, that’s perfect. You’re a good aardvark!’

‘How do you know I’m a good aardvark?’

‘Because that’s just what my book says you’re supposed to eat!’

‘I also eat cucumber,’ the aardvark replied.

‘Oh no, you really shouldn’t!’ Podge retorted with a worried look on his face.

‘Why not?’

‘Because my book says nothing about cucumbers. That means you’re probably not allowed to eat them. Oh boy, why do you have to eat cucumbers? What is wrong with you? It’s so unnatural.. You should eat termites!’

‘Hm,’ the aardvark said. ‘I had no idea there was something wrong with me until just now. But I do eat termites rather frequently,’ he apologized.

‘Oh, good!’

‘I’m curious,’ the aardvark inquired. ‘Do you always do what the book says?’

‘Oh yes, always!’

‘And what does your book say about badgers?’

‘A badger is a short-legged nocturnal omnivore,’ Podge read solemnly.

‘Nocturnal, huh? Then how come you are up and about after daybreak?’ the aardvark wanted to know.

Podge blushed, felt guilty and fell silent. He picked up his things and scurried home to sleep on it.

‘What a strange animal… !’ the aardvark thought. ‘He walks around at night with only one book and a tiny flashlight, yet claims to know what everything is…’

Things you can observe at 7 a.m.

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I watched blackbirds today.

I couldn’t sleep.

Early at dawn I watched a parent

feed her chick.

The older one was dark –

as burdens darken us;

the younger pale,

unknowing, made a fuss.

Peck, peck, they went

as their small beaks touched

From where I sat,

it looked as if they kissed.

And it occurred to me

that this is how you feed

the nerve to fly,

which I so sorely missed.

Wind in the tall grasses

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Today I will write about the wind in the tall grasses.

Lost, immaterial, like our souls,

Just a passage from one place to another.

Just air. Just breath.

Soft stalks undulating. It’s ballet. Beautiful submission.

Soothing choreography under a ruthless sun.

People pass by on their bicycles

Barely noticing.

Barely noticing the road leads nowhere.

Barely noticing they’re cycling in circles,

Like the seasons,

Inevitably ending up the same, just older. Drier.

Have you noticed how heavy our souls have become

And how they weigh on the landscape

Chased by this cruel big sky?

How hard the wind has to blow to still move them?

Two blades of grass standing tall,

Then bent by the gale. The caress of a green tassel.

Two blades touching each other for a second

Softly, until they don’t. Until they cut skin.

Quote of the day

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“Every man who believes in something in an absolute fashion is the mortal enemy of “truth“ and “reality”.

Fanaticism – vibrant stupidity bewitched by a ludicrous Unconditional. Transforming one facet of Becoming into the sole reality; converting one aspect of the spirit into a fixed point of reference; elevating an “event“ to the rank of unappealable symbol – that is the mechanism of violating diversity which defines the intolerance of any faith. (…)

The partisan of a political sect experiences the obsession of things spelled in uppercase just like any believer. All the evil and the little good that we know in time derive from the truncated vision of fanaticism. The transformations of society – on the pretext of unqualifiable “progress” – are possible through resistance to clear sight, to contradictory existence, through suppression of the descriptive spirit. Prolific ages are fatal to the spirit. Because every creation is obtained at the expense of understanding and impartiality. Taking part in something means reducing yourself to a system of acts that exclude all others; suppressing the divergent neighbor; resorting to the state or the police, in any case to a uniform, to decide on controversies that have made philosophers fail; and, ultimately, channeling breath in a single direction.

Therefore, one can only breathe in sterile ages – those ages in which each individual takes part – at the very most – in themselves.”

Emil Cioran – Razne (Digressions), Paris, 1945-46 (translated from Romanian by the owner of this blog).

Child’s play

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A boy drags an empty bag through the sand.

He tied it at the end of a rope.
The wind blows into it, swelling it, ruffling it,
making it float and then
nearly ripping it out of his hand.

The bag is as transparent and light as this boy’s soul.
Soul, boy, breath, wind blowing…

Later, when it’s full of sand
It won’t fly anymore.

Quote of the day

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“If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.”

Hannah Arendt – The Human Condition (1958)