Pays au dela

"As to the natural parts I have, of which this is the essay, I find them to bow under the burden; my fancy and judgment do but grope in the dark, tripping and stumbling [wobbling] in the way, and when I have gone as far as I can, I am in no degree satisfied; I discover still a new and greater extent of land before me, with a troubled and imperfect sight and wrapped up in clouds, that I am not able to penetrate." Montaigne-"On the Education of Children"

My domain name, "Pais au dela," is the original French translated here as "extent of land before me." My goal for this page will be to explore, in an ambling way at times, the great land before me hoping to find clarity as I advance. I will focus centrally though not exclusively on mental health issues in my stumbling march forward.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

NFL Murder-Suicide 2: Jovan Belcher and Junior Seau

It has been a little over a week since Kansas City Chief's linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins and then committed suicide in front of two of his coaches and the team's general manager. Belcher's death was the second high profile suicide by an NFL player this year. Linebacking legend, Junior Seau also shot and killed himself on May 2nd.

Following Seau and Belcher's deaths, loved ones have expressed awful shock about being clipped out of nowhere by egregious violence. Given what they knew prior about Seau and Belcher, these deaths don't add up, don't make any sense because the person they knew would never have done this. The man that surfaced ugly in the final hours bears no resemblance to the person that teammates, coaches, friends and family loved up until then. Eternal ache! Disparate, shattered memory forever out of sorts never to be stitched again into cohesion!

Junior Seau was known for being cheerful, generous, outgoing, and generally fun to be around. Belcher was a perpetual overachiever, a doggedly studious and attentive success story who clawed his way into the starting lineup and a major contract after going unselected in the 2009 draft. Both men did exceptionally difficult things with their bodies. Most of us accept very early in life that we'll never see the athletic pinnacles they reached.

While it's hard to imagine a suicide that isn't a shock for family and friends, Junior Seau's end clanks irrational against the conquering dominance we saw from him for so long. And Jovan Belcher killing his girlfriend and mother to his infant child makes even less sense. Before the fact, we don't readily ingest any idea that goes against that display of strength and power. After the deed, we're left with mismatched pieces that won't reform into any coherent unity. What could possibly press down so heavy to snap these giant shoulders that meet everything head on and only overcome?

The potential for weakness was always there even if we don't take much time to acknowledge or articulate it. It's not that we really cover it up. We don't actively deny the possibility of falling down when looking up to professional athletes. The vulnerability of Jovan Belcher and Junior Seau simply doesn't occur to us very intuitively, and they become imaginary heroes lacking the human imperfections that plague us all.  But Junior Seau ran up against something he couldn't handle. The impressive physical stature and cheerful disposition crumbled beneath unchecked, hidden sadness. And Jovan Belcher snapped in desperation or anger or drunkenness or fear and jealousy or some lethal combination of them all. Neither man was supposed to be the kind of guy to do something like this. Both did.

Our conventional notions of strength and toughness are flawed. The idea that there is a certain type of person who commits suicide needs to disappear for good. The assumption that the strong won't succumb does unthinkable damage. It reinforces sport culture that prizes quiet self-reliance as the noble way to deal with adversity. And if you assume you can't slip and if people praise you your entire life for taking your lumps like a man, you never learn what to do and how to get back on track when the mind derails into distorted and dysfunctional thinking about all being lost. You never even learn that going off the tracks is possible. How could you be prepared to right yourself? Powerful, swift bodies do not automatically make you mentally strong, and physical prowess does not necessarily prepare you to confront all of life's difficulties. What do you do when, like Jovan Belcher, your financial situation and love life feel like they are collapsing in on top of you? Toughing it out and balling up alone and silent with your inner struggles are rarely productive ways of coming through that sort of difficulty.

Coaches and players at all levels in all sports across the country need to take notice of these things. They need to be talking openly about Jovan Belcher murdering and committing suicide. More broadly, they need to discuss how and why the exceptionally strong among us can sometimes end up so far gone. Playing sports we aspire to the type of toughness that Junior Seau and Jovan Belcher displayed for so long on the field. We want to imitate them when they keep working through difficulty, play through pain, and smash life's challenges flush on the mouth like fullbacks attempting to make a lead block. But we need more than all that if we want a functional model of what it means to be strong and tough. Mental toughness in the athletic world often means that you keep going no matter what, all the time, no matter how bad it hurts. This sort of toughness can grind you into rigid brittleness. I want coaches to talk differently about toughness, especially mental toughness to their players. I want them to encourage young people to work hard on understanding their weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and soft spots. Going ninety miles an hour even when it hurts is a difficult and sometimes very useful thing to know how to do. But so is knowing what sets you off, knowing yourself well enough to keep from derailing when things fall apart. Admitting that you hurt and looking calmly and closely at yourself to figure out why and how to fix it takes a lot of work. If playing sports is really to be a practice run that prepares young people for life in general, athletes need to come away from their experience with more than just the ability to play through pain. They need to hone their skills for self-understanding so they might see more clearly and then root out the sources of their own potentially fatal pain, frustration, and sadness.