I know this is a little late – everyone else shared their thoughts on Lance Armstrong last week. And it’s not what I usually think about or write about, except that it is, if you look beyond the current events to the heart of that matter.
Anyway, I saw the facts of Armstrong’s confession pop up on Facebook the morning after the first part of the interview aired, and I looked up the details. And then . . . then I was flooded with a while gamut of emotions, with feelings I had to wade through until I could find the thoughts that brought them on. This is a list of those.
He’s in pain. I read the commentaries that said he was cold and emotionless, and I wondered what those people were watching when the interview was on or if they bothered to look into the man’s eyes. It was so clear to me that he was trying not to lose it, trying not to break down or rant or show everyone just how much he hated himself in those moments. I could barely stand to look at his eyes in the pictures of him with Oprah, let alone in the video clips of the interview itself. (I can’t imagine the emotion Oprah was handling, being right there. She’s a genius, that lady, at least in some ways.) He’s holding so much emotion in that interview – anger, shame, guilt, self-loathing, agony – and I wished, for his sake, that people could have seen that even though it didn’t look the way they wanted it to.
He’s still not whole. More whole, maybe, but not whole-whole. That’s a long way off (but how many of us could say anything different?). What I’m thinking of here, though, are the people who want to discount the sincerity of his confession and remorse because there’s at least a decent chance he’s still lying (about not doping during his comeback). And I don’t think we can do that.
Laying aside the point that he could possibly still go to jail if he was doping during his comeback (which doesn’t justify the lie but helps make a bit more sense of it, to me at least), souls rarely heal all at once. He did a huge, hard thing in that interview, but it didn’t make him an entirely new person. He’s still got, rattling around inside of him, that arrogant jerk of a man who hurt himself and hurt the people around him and believed things about himself that were false. He admitted this himself, in the interview. That man is on his way out, but he’s not gone and we can’t expect him to be. And so we can’t expect Armstrong to be making all of his decisions from a new place. If he lied, I suspect he still wants to hold into something from the time when everyone, including himself, believed he was great because of the things he did on his bicycle. That doesn’t negate the confession and apology he did make, but it shows how far he has to grow.
What he’s been through is soul-destroying. I shudder to imagine the toll that so much lying, bullying and self-deception take on a person (not to mention the soul-toll of the doping itself). This is a man who was lied to, who believed those lies, and who acted, for years and with every ounce of his being, to make those lies true. I don’t know who the real Lance Armstrong is, and I suspect he doesn’t, either. (Actually, I suspect that only people who might have more than an inkling are the women in his life – his mother, his ex-wife, maybe his current gf). Believing a lie and taking it in like he did, requires an extraordinarily low sense of self (not, as some have argued, an extremely high one). And to live solely from that false place, from a false self engorged on laud and adoration, for so long and with so much arrogance and emphasis . . . well, it can only be more destructive. This is a broken man, a hurting man, a man who needs our help and blessing for his healing, not our judgement and condemnation.
He’s still an amazing athlete. It wasn’t just the drugs that won those trophies. He trained, and trained hard. I’ve seen some of the mountains he rode up on a regular basis, and they aren’t any smaller because he doped to win races. He put in the hours and the miles and gave up nearly everything of normal life to succeed on the bike (In fact, I suspect that’s part of what made doping attractive to him – it gave more of a guaranteed payout for everything he’d put in). In fact, I think that one of the tragedies of his story (among many greater, admittedly) is that we’ll never get to know just how good of an athlete he was. Still, I don’t think we need to throw out the good just because it’s mixed with a lot of bad. Let it be what it is, but tell the truth about what’s there.
I can’t help but wonder if any of us could avoid sin if we were offered what he thought he was offered. This is what it all comes down to. It’s the reason my heart broke for him and is breaking still, and the reason I can look in his eyes through my computer screen and know what’s going on inside of him.
When I look with eyes that aren’t searching for reasons to be angry, I see a lot of plain, ol’ humanity in Armstrong’s story. I see myself, if my life had taken a different road, and I see my family and even my kids and just about everyone I know. Think about it . . . he was offered everything he thought he’d always wanted, everything he wished and dreamed and hoped he could be, and everything he thought might be taken away by cancer, on a platter. He was offered a gold-plate ticket to false-self glory, and they told him it was solid.
I don’t say this to take away his responsibility. He could have said no. Though what would that take, really? It’s easy to condemn him, until I think of the things that I most want for myself in the world. If all I had to do to be a famous and highly acclaimed writer was to take a few pills (or injections and blood transfusions, whatever) and hide it from people, I’m not sure I could say no. And if they said that everyone is doing it, that J K Rowling and John Grisham and many of those who had been on the New York Times Top 10 List for the last 10 years had done it, then I’m really not sure. And if I knew that, no matter how hard I tried, I probably didn’t have a chance if I didn’t do it, and if I’d already dedicated my life and come back from something horrible and . . . and . . . and . . . I’m just not sure I could refuse an offer like that. And if I could do it now, I’m not sure I could have done it 3 or 5 or 10 years ago, before I started to see the value of small, before I had more than just me to think about and before “success” meant more than one thing.
All of that to say, Armstrong’s story seems more human to me than anything else. It plays on some of the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to see or, if we see, don’t want to admit. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there, and it certainly doesn’t mean we need to condemn him so that we don’t have to see and condemn ourselves.
In the end, I wish we were a softer nation, a softer people. I wish we were a people willing to open our hearts again, even after we’ve been hurt. I wish we were a people who could see what is, not just what we want to see. I think that would change how we would receive someone in Armstrong’s shoes. Who knows? It might have prevented the whole situation in the first place.