Travails of the striving human: acceptance versus the everlasting refusal to accept

“Tell me something, old friend: why are you fighting?”
“What other reason could there be?” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez answered. “For the great Liberal party.”
“You’re lucky because you know why,” he answered. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve come to realize only just now that I’m fighting because of pride.”
“That’s bad,” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez said.
Colonel Aureliano Buendia was amused at his alarm. “Naturally,” he said. “But in any case, it’s better than not knowing why you’re fighting.” He looked him in the eyes and added with a smile:
“Or fighting, like you, for something that doesn’t have any meaning for anyone.”
– Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

 

And so Jonathan Trott has left the England cricket squad and returned home, reportedly suffering ill mental health. Mental health remains a sensitive area in society. Yet as our population has become educated, the social stigma previously attached to such an illness has largely been replaced with nodding sympathy.

As Stephen Fry, himself a publicly declared sufferer of mental illness, cleverly tweeted this morning: “sending love and sympathy to Jonathan Trott. I’m sure @CricketAus and their side do too…”

Regrettably, loud pockets of uneducated society continue to mock the very notion of mental illness. Indeed, it is sometimes cited as a sign of weakness. Something to be exploited.

We know that mental illness and its diagnosis are growing rapidly in developed nations.  Theories abound seeking to explain this observation. Arguments are mounted around raised pressure to succeed, the absence of community in the life of the individual, increased financial pressures and (perhaps related) increased relationship pressures.

A counter theory I heard on Saturday suggested that observing increased rates of mental illness diagnosis was a good thing, because it indicated that people are no longer afraid of social stigma, and are therefore more inclined to seek professional help. Impossible to critique.

The antidote to mental illness, without being at all flippant, seems to be the idea of acceptance. Acceptance, the great cornerstone of Buddhist mantra and of mental health experts, is to avoid judgment of self or others or of whole situations. It is to avoid projecting in time or space. It is, purely enough, to accept.

With the news of Jonathan Trott and the remembrance of Marcus Trescothick similarly leaving a tour of Australia with mental illness, the current headline-grabbing furore over sledging has a particular poignancy. What place has “mental disintegration” in top level sport? What place does it have in daily life? Should your child is subject to mental disintegration tactics in the schoolyard? What about on the junior sports field? In the workplace? On the senior sports field? When representing their country?

I imagine there to be very much more behind this particular illness than a couple of “pretty weak,” “pretty poor,” “scared eyes,” comments from a sporting opponent. Yet I wonder, are the demands of top level sport completely contrary to good mental health?

 

“One minute of reconciliation is worth more than a whole life of friendship!”
– Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Top level sport demands time. Time that may be otherwise spent cultivating personal interests and relationships, is funneled into ever-growing niche fields of video analysis, diet programs and meeting room etiquette. Here, the opportunity cost is clear.

But aside from swapping time-for-time, I think the bigger danger is one of outlook.  For what is all that time used? The idea of acceptance, while acknowledged as a peaceful place of grand mental health, seems necessarily to be the antithesis of the top level sportsperson’s outlook, and indeed, life. Where a mentally healthy person may have acceptance in their head, the top level sportsperson must never accept. To accept would be to embrace mediocrity. No, no, rather than accept, the driven athlete will leave no stone unturned in order to DISCOVER inadequacies. There is a constant and relentless SEARCH for improvement. How can I do better? How can I do better?

The conflict of acceptance (in order to maintain mental health) versus the everlasting refusal to accept (in order to succeed) is fascinating. Yet followers of Buddhist acceptance philosophy have risen to the top in sport and business and other facets of life. I wonder how that is achieved. Brett Kirk, for instance, a famously hard nut on the footy field, forever striving for an extra effort, is a well-known Buddhist follower. How does one traverse this bridge between acceptance and the everlasting refusal to accept?

This bridge of incompatibility between acceptance and a desire to improve must be a tricky bridge to cross. And it certainly swings beyond the sporting arena. Many families and workplaces are full of people STRIVING very very hard to “succeed.” In fact, it is precisely this trait which is most commonly rewarded with status and money. Perhaps the question becomes: what is it to “succeed”? I suspect that is the true question. And answering it becomes the way to set up a healthy bridge.

What is it to succeed? Wishing Jonathan Trott , in his new paradigm of success, all the best.

 

“Nevertheless, in the impenetrable solitude of decrepitude she had such a clairvoyance as she examined the most insignificant happenings in the family that for the first time she saw clearly the truths that her busy life in former times had prevented her from seeing.”
– Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

About David Wilson

David Wilson is a writer, editor, flood forecaster and former school teacher. He writes under the name “E.regnans” at The Footy Almanac and has stories in several books. He is married and has two daughters and the four of them all live together with their dog, Pip. He finds playing the guitar a little tricky, but seems to have found a kindred instrument with the ukulele. Favourite tree: Eucalyptus regnans.

Comments

  1. Cat from the Country says

    Good comments.
    Surely this us a case of bullying in the workplace!
    What message is this giving our young players?

  2. Dave – thought provoking piece. No one knows what another person’s mental demons are really like.

    Just because something is accepted doesn’t mean it will continue to be accepted. For example, if I am an elite young footballer I might accept I don’t have a strong left foot, but I will continuously strive to make my left foot stronger. So acceptance is not an embrace of mediocrity. Neither, in my view, is acceptance the place of grand mental health. Judgement, so long as it is healthy, intelligent, and thoughtful, is the place of grand mental health. if we don’t judge, we don’t provoke original or intelligent thought. We must always judge, and be judged. If a scientist never used judgement he would never strive to find a solution to scientific conundrums. If I never judged I would have nothing to guide my behaviour.

    I wouldn’t make a good Buddhist.

  3. I’m more in your camp EiiR, so I have some differences with CC and Dips. First thing is to say that in the particular case of Jonathan Trott we are all guessing. We have no idea of his upbringing, attitudes, relationships and clinical history.
    But it is useful to talk in general terms because it sheds light on important but murky territory.
    My experience is that the vulnerability to a depressive disorder is set in place in early life (under 8) though adolescent torment/bullying/insecurity can certainly make it much more likely to materialise. So I don’t think sledging by Warner or anyone else in the past few years has much to do with his current episode. My guess would be that Warner’s naïve smarts just spotted in ‘scared eyes’ what a clinician would call ‘affect’ – the telltale mannerisms and changes that give a hint of the turmoil underneath. It was an after the fact observation and no more meaningfully causal than saying “you’re not looking well”.
    In life I think we mainly look for 3 things – acceptance; hope and enjoyment/fulfilment. My guess is that the things that drove Trott to sporting excellence all counted against these 3. His manner and outsider South African history gave me the impression that he would be a relentless perfectionist behind the scenes. Averaging 40? Aim for 45. Got that? Aim for 50. Weakness on off stump? Nothing 3 months of rebuilding technique in the nets and endless video analysis won’t cure.
    There is a diminishing returns in all of this. “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” You endlessly mentally and physically rehearse; but in the end you become a repetitive treadmill rat more than improving. You lose sight of what the intuitive skills were that made you a good cricketer in the first place.
    In that you start to doubt yourself, and that feeds into a cycle of hopelessness. I often say that “I used to be so smart I could think my way up my own arsehole.”
    And without the reinforcement of success there is no enjoyment or fulfilment to be had in playing sport for money in front of thousands of adoring envious fans.
    You become totally convinced that you are a worthless, hopeless fraud and this state is permanent.
    That is a long way round of saying that I think EiiR and the Buddhists are right about the power of acceptance. You accept that you are pretty good and things are pretty good today – right now. You think your technique must be pretty good to have got you to this level, and you are going to trust it, albeit with small fine tunings as needs require.
    I reckon Dave Warner is a great example of acceptance, because he always looks natural in his stroke play, but is learning judgement about when to employ the big shots. It is still intuitive and not forced.
    Same with Brett Kirk. I reckon he just said I’m a running and tackling machine. I accept that I can’t mark and can’t kick, but I’ll get to more contests than anyone in the game, apply myself totally in each contested moment, and see what happens. Answer: possessions and premierships.
    He thought about process and let the results (good or bad) look after themselves. My guess is that JT overthought the process and then let fear and insecurity about results overwhelm him.
    We are human BEINGS, not human DOINGS. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Strive but don’t expect. That way you are constantly surprised at happy outcomes. The other way lies madness – Carey; GAblett Snr; Lance Armstrong; Cousins etc etc etc.
    To finish on an optimistic note: my hunch is that elite sport is too much walking the precipice of success and failure; once you have had an episode like this. Physical sports maybe not so bad as in the Hurling article last week – you can lose yourself in the fray. Fast bowlers are mad, they don’t go mad. But batting at cricket; golf; tennis have such fine margins as to make them intolerable.
    Once he has had a period of therapy, rest and reflection – my guess is that Trott will be an outstanding success in business or management. He has shown the application and drive to succeed at the highest level. This episode approached properly (‘Depression is my friend not my enemy’ as Conor Cusack wrote) will round out his humanity, and take the edge off that single-minded obsessiveness. I expect to see him as a business leader in 5-10 years time.

  4. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Great piece Dave,

    It’s a difficult one to find solutions to. As Dips says, you don’t want to judge, yet life compels us to categorise, classify and compartmentalise in order to make sense of the world.
    I’ve been to Buddhist and Christian monasteries from Reservoir to Bangkok to Mount Athos in Greece and the monastics all preached acceptance and detachment, which is fine if you’re insulated from the complexities of the everyday world. I’m not a big prayer buff, but I reckon there is some truth in the Serenity Prayer: ‘Accept what I can’t change, Courage to change what I can and Wisdom to know the Difference’
    Honest reflection, humour, open dialogue, meaningful professional and personal engagement along with effective medication can help us see the world in a better light. Really enjoyed the quotes selected from Marquez. Last week I saw a wonderful performance by Leonard Cohen. He has battled depression all his life, but found some solace in Zen Buddhism. I find meaning in his lyrics:

    “Ah I don’t believe you’d like it,
    You wouldn’t like it here.
    There ain’t no entertainment
    and the judgements are severe.
    The Maestro says it’s Mozart
    but it sounds like bubble gum
    when you’re waiting
    for the miracle, for the miracle to come. “

  5. “Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack, a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in”

    – Leonard Cohen “Anthem”

  6. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Beautiful PB, got a new appreciation for Bird on a Wire after the concert.

    “I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
    he said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
    And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
    she cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”

    Oh like a bird on the wire,
    like a drunk in a midnight choir
    I have tried in my way to be free.”

  7. No one captures the sacred and the profane as well as Mr Cohen:

    “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.”

    “It was only when you walked away I saw you had the perfect ass. Forgive me for not falling in love with your face or your conversation.”

    It’s all distilled by genius Phil.

    I loved the great American sportswriter Red Smith:

    “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

    “Dying is no big deal;
    the least of us will manage it.
    Living is the trick.”

  8. Thanks all. I’m not a Leonard Cohen fan. It’s the voice, though, that does me in. Lyrics read well there. But let’s just leave that admission alone.

    Cat – interesting call. Perhaps this does fall under workplace health and safety jurisdiction.

    Dips – spot on. We will never know the mental machinations of another person. The acceptance of a poor left foot kick would lead to mediocrity, as you say, if the footballer was content with that. Perhaps the acceptance is the acceptance of understanding you’ve got a LOT of practice ahead of you in order to be a decent left-foot kick. Once the acceptance is made, you’re no longer striving for a distant goal, rather you’re labouring along in tune with your world. Serene.
    I think judgement is something else all together. But related. Interesting.

    PB – thanks for sharing your insights. I agree that it is useful to shine a light in this oft-neglected spot. We all of us have our personal traits, our environmental exposures and our inner monologues. It’s an amazing old world.
    “Living is the trick” – boom.

    Phil_D – great words. As N. cunninghamii here often says, “we’re all just muddling along.” We will never know what Jonathan Trott, nor anyone else, has in his/their head. But we do have the capacity to choose to act with dignity and compassion towards all others. Imagine.

  9. craig dodson says

    Very interesting read Dave, I think the positive of the Trott situation is that it has created a discussion on mental health.

  10. Andrew Starkie says

    Come on you old farts! Bon Jovi: ‘Take my hand, we’ll make it, I swear,
    Oooo Oooo, Living on a prayer!’

    At least its not Eurythmics, Phil.

    MH is one of the biggest health issues facing Western society today. And growing. It is finally being taken seriously. However, we’ve seen recently, eg Harry O’Brien and Trott, media and professional sport still have a long way to go. Warner’s stupid comments were probably not the cause of Trott’s departure, but they possibly played a role in his current relapse. It’s been sad to witness the media drawing the link over the pat few days. CA should be very careful with the image this current team is creating. It doesn’t seem to care. Win at all costs, perhaps. Huss has gone and he is replaced by Warner?! He should never be allowed to speak in public.

    MH for the young is an emerging issue. Depression, paranoia, anxiety, etc are nearly always caused by domestic violence, abuse in all forms, neglect. Some may suggest, shit parenting.

  11. Yesterday Ed Cowan sent a link via his Twitter feed to this article (link below).
    It was written by Martin Crowe and expresses with great eloquence and insight, the importance he attributes to “acceptance.”
    Big conversation.
    http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/693959.html

  12. Wow. That Martin Crowe article from Cricinfo is brilliant. And so true to so many people and walks of life, not just elite sport. Been there, done that.
    Thanks for sharing EiiR.
    I carry copy of Jason Kevin Grove’s simple and courageous story from the Almanac in 2011 around with me when I am working. It was called “Black Dog to Goal Posts” and what always struck me was the acceptance and connection that came from goal umpiring in country footy. I have seen many clients and mental health workers have that “uh huh” moment about the importance of community to long term recovery. I use it partly to illustrate the point “would you want to be sane/sober and live here in this isolation?”
    I hope Jason is doing well and I would love to get in contact with him and know more of what has happened for him since 2011. He has helped a lot of people.
    Sport and communities like small footy clubs and the Almanac are so crucial in providing an accepting and acceptable forum for exploration and support – particularly for us ‘closed up’ blokes.
    We have sub-contracted out our sport, our parenting, and our aged care – so western culture is now a disconnected mess. We want experiences and relationships, but marketing and popular culture (which are really the same thing) have convinced us what we need is more possessions and escapes.
    Jason’s wonderful article is here:
    https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/29202/

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