Winning At All Costs by William Klein

Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in the history of the sport, recently pulled out of competitions choosing her mental well-being over Olympic gold. She is being praised for her choice and rightly so.

A recent article in the New York Times opinion piece written by skiing world champion Zoe Ruhl noted that it was not uncommon for athletes to have to choose between living a healthy life and meeting the demands of their sport.

When concerned about being at a competition during the school year, Ruhl requested a short reprieve from competition in hopes that she may still qualify to be a part of the team and pursue victories at a later date.

Ruhl essentially said, “Their response was either you care about the sport or you don’t.” In other words, tough luck, kid. No middle ground. There are plenty of other people out there willing to sacrifice life and limb, concussions, back and spine injury for the rest of their lives to seek their glory.

To her credit, like Biles, Ruhl chose to pursue medical school and dropped out of competitive events.

Stories like these capture the imaginations of people because we’ve all experienced the pull of our egos to pursue things that may compromise our lives and families’ lives.

Most of us have seen or met the workaholic millionaire whose priority is achieving the American Dream by sacrificing healthy relationships, missing family events, working seventy to eighty hour weeks and drowning their sorrows in booze or using amphetamines to keep up with an unrealistic pace of life. I have personally met doctors and lawyers who landed on Skid Row because of their choice.

This drive to succeed is inculcated in us at an early age. I’ve worked in a high-pressured school environment where students feel as though they need to succeed beyond everything else. There is the feeling that through making the grade and going to an Ivy League school there is an acceptance and level of privilege that can block out the mental, emotional health aspects that come with the glory of fortune.

In some small twisted way there is a belief that we can be protected from the world of sorrow through achievement. Helicopter parents invading the methodology of schools to win first and ask questions later is not uncommon these days. 

I spent much of my time in the classroom contradicting what students were being taught at home through scripture stories that identified how worldly aspirations set us up for ultimate failure but the elixir of success is too great and many answered the questions suitably to meet the needs of the class. Others demonstrated that the “pie in the sky” ideals were just that. They were to be understood rather than lived. In these circumstances we make the choice to live a contented life or a life of high-pressured pursuit of fortune.

Some students get it and realize they are fulfilling the will of and fluffing their parents’ egos.  They make choices to rise above and seek out meeting their needs first. I’ve met many a student who chose to serve and lead through their example rather than waste their time in a job that will rob them of an opportunity to experience small achievements that make life glorious – staying home with their child, woman or man; watching a child overcoming stage fright; witnessing a son or daughter who got his first hit after a number of strike outs; welcoming a soulful thank you from a person enjoying the only meal of a day he will eat.  Wise souls for being mindful of an even and balanced life.

On the other hand, I’ve met students that need to see a better life and challenged them to envision a future that affords them riches beyond their wildest dreams. Achievement is a life changing opportunity to experience more riches and God’s glory in a powerful expression. Work is a healthy distraction from the pains of poverty. It’s a tenuous tightrope to walk.

Personally, it took me a long time to find that sweet spot, and I still struggle with it. Live comfortably, serve others and make time for listening to the “still small voice within.”

The Buddhists have it right when they address the world through the Middle Way. Any extreme is dangerous. Biles’ decision is a sign of a healthy mental attitude. The Buddhists would also remind us that mindfulness in catching a glimpse of divinity in small victories is a treasure in the heart best served with a nod to humility.

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