Rob Campbell   -  

I had not planned to write anything about the Olympics this time around as no real fresh thoughts were coming to mind. Then the whole story about Simone Biles became news and my thoughts started churning. There is alot to learn when we have the benefit of hindsight and reflection and the whole story with her withdrawal is not fully processed just one week later. But, there are some things with her announcement to withdraw from Olympic competition that struck chords of thought. Or, perhaps in some circles of conversation, became a flashpoint.

Let me say straight out that I don’t know the whole story. I am not really a news junkie so there may be some piece of information I missed in the news cycle. What I wanted to comment on is her initial announcement last week to withdraw from competition based upon mental health and safety reasons and the subsequent reactions. For some context, here is something Simone said,

“Whenever you get in a high-stress situation, you kind of freak out. I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being. We have to protect our body and our mind. It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”

Yes, I left in that last sentence because it resonates with people. The struggle no one wants, is hard to face, and will not always be met with much encouragement and goodwill.

It was impossible to miss the significance of her decision as it became the major news story on the front end of the Olympics. But what really turned my interest is when the whole subject of mental health came in to the conversation. I will admit that when I heard that I was apprehensive. Mental health never comes in to a conversation without critics and pushback. Her story was world news. Maybe it’s because I have daughters about Simon’s age, but I felt protective of someone’s story even though I don’t personally know her. The little bit of reading I did seemed to evidence that others felt this need also to protect her story – to protect her. Here are just a few things I am pondering trying to be like the guy in Proverbs observing the overgrown field and reflecting (Proverbs 24:30-34).

How far has our consumer mentality gone?  We wanted to see Simone do what Simone does best and when we didn’t get that…a flashpoint of reaction ignites. So much has been said about the rise of consumerism. How many times has a story been told about the frugality and resourcefulness of the generation that lived through the Great Depression? This as contrasted with the increasing desire of our generation to consume instead of save and simply go without. (Did your grandma wash the disposable plastic ziplock bags over and over?) And now we are consumers of human talent without much regard for the human themself. We cannot imagine telling one of our daughters that what they do is more important than who they are. Yet, the responses to this world class athlete seem to suggest that in some cases what people do matters far more than who they are. There are responsibilities with being the G.O.A.T (greatest of all time). Simone through hard work, tenacity and the support of many was crowned the greatest of women’s gymnastics. But it isn’t enough. There is the desire to always perform. To deliver what we expect. I started following Simone on Instagram and felt both happy and sad when I read what she wrote:

“The outpouring of love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I’ve never truly believed before.”

I am really happy that she is receiving love and support. I was sad that she said she had not believed this before. Perhaps our desire to keep people doing what we want from them is a hindrance to them valuing themselves for who they are.

Physical brokenness is easier understood and accepted than anything that happens to us mentally. If an athlete goes down with a physical injury, very few people tell them not to fake it. You would be perceived as a very harsh and severe person to say such a thing. But if a person is walking around, smiling, cheering, and claiming a mental health issue, well, that’s another issue. This is where the news of Simone hit the flashpoint, which is the title of this blog article. One news headline read, “In a divided US, it’s no surprise some see Simone Biles as a villain.” A villain?!  I read some of the article and what some were saying was over-the-top offensive. Maybe its part of fighting for click-bait news, but c’mon. This just highlights how far the chasm is of understanding mental health the way we understand physical brokenness.

It seemed the voices that spoke the soonest and the loudest in Simon’s defense were women. Some of that makes sense because I would think (though I don’t know) women’s gymnastics has more women followers. Did men have anything to say about someone’s need to focus on mental health? But then Olympic medalist Michael Phelps spoke. He said Simon’s anguish, “broke my heart.” I am glad he said it that way instead of the standard, “She needed to do what is best for her.” I mean can anyone empathize instead of just offering commentary? Michael Phelps spoke with empathy. I wonder what we say to people who struggle? I wonder if we can, for a moment be with them in that moment of need even if we don’t know all they feel and are going through. Will we offer the standard “safe” things to say? Can we take the time to climb down into the pit of despair with a fellow friend and sit with them. Is our first instinct to just tell people what to do and give our perceived “fix” to the problem? Why are men reticent to respond to mental health issues? I do not know if this is the case but I mention it in case it is even close to true – I had read that most of the negative responses to Simon’s decision were men. I think that stories like Simon’s should give men the motivation they need to learn how we can be better at helping in the cause of mental health. And maybe it is as simple as saying we should be better listeners to genuinely learn and reflect.

I think most of my friends know that I tend to stay away from cliche’ Christian phrases. So, pardon this reference if you don’t care for them either but it was running through my head. What would Jesus do (WWJD)? How would Jesus respond to what Simone Biles is doing? We know he can sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). He was thirsty on the Cross and knows human deprivation. His soul was consumed with sorrow (Matthew 26:38). He saw people as “harassed and helpless” (Mt. 9:36). Jesus is concerned about our whole being and not only the spiritual part of us (Mt. 15:30). Shouldn’t we keep learning and keep growing in our desire to understand and help others in their mental health?

Maybe the desire to protect Simone also involves the need we feel to guard our own inner lives from taking a direct hit. In taking up for someone else we offer protection for ourselves or those we love who struggle. I know others have said this but, what Simone Biles did was incredibly brave. Without minimizing her other accomplishments in life, this decision may be the hardest and most courageous thing she has ever done. Vulnerability is a risk. Things cannot be different without people taking risks. I wanted to end with a quote from pastor’s wife and author Jen Oshman who said on her Twitter account July 28:

“I love the example of @naomiosaka and @Simone_Biles. May we learn from these strong women. They know they are not instruments to be consumed for entertainment. They refuse to be machines exploited for national gain. They’ve bypassed bigger titles, bigger fame, and bigger fortune. Because they know they are human, even if we don’t treat them as such. They know they are finite, in need of rest. They know themselves and they know the price of stepping down. I’m impressed. More grace, less hustle.”