The big news story this week is Simone Biles, the twenty-four-year-old gymnast who bowed out of Olympic competition because she needed to take care of her own mental health. Because of her tremendous achievements in the sport, she is seen as the “greatest gymnast of all time.” That’s quite a yoke to place on the neck of a young woman.
People have expressed lots of understanding and compassion. That is great. People have also expressed disappointment and anger because they feel let down, because they had expectations of glory for the US Team. That is not so great but expected. Sometimes, it seems, we need to live vicariously through the success of others. Biles is a winner who made others feel like winners.
Simone Biles survived foster care, sexual assault, and injury. She bears the hopes and expectations of those of us who would fall off a balance beam before completing a step, who couldn’t do a back flip or somersault to save our lives - all as a young woman with a whole life ahead of her. So, given the weight a whole world has placed upon her petite, but mighty, shoulders, maybe we should not be surprised she said, “Enough.”
Biles has explained that she needed to focus on her mental health – something far too few of us have the courage to do. I am appalled that the translation of seeking “mental health” in this case has been turned into “a struggle with mental illness” by pundit and media. These are not the same things. We see a “winner” not do what leads to more “winning” and we think something is wrong with them. Shame on us. Seems to me that Ms. Biles is maybe just tired of fulfilling our expectations and desired to tend her own soul. Good for her. She’s not mentally ill. She’s self-aware.
We live in a culture that so worships winning that we can’t understand that winning is not everything, nor is it the only thing. (Vince Lombardi was wrong). We turn everything into a contest and sport. Fans rest their own happiness on the winning of their favorite team. Parents sometimes rest hopes on the score of their kid’s next soccer game, the outcome of the music contest (and when did music go from art to contest?) or grade point average. In the process we use up a kid’s childhood to make them winners. I’ve witnessed young people who engaged in self-harm to wiggle out from under the expectations they bore from parents, coaches, and communities.
Winning isn’t the only thing. Winning is a harsh and judging taskmaster when it demands complete allegiance; when it shapes our view of the world so thoroughly that we lose sight of grace. Grace is the only thing. As Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Grace gives us the things we can never attain though practice and hard work. Grace bestows what matters in God’s reign of love and justice. In Christ, we see that winning, and power, and being the best are exactly the opposite of what God intends for the world. Christ is the ultimate “loser” in the eyes of the world. Perhaps Simone Biles realizes that she is enough without the winning and she needs to tend who she is at the core of her being – a child of God. Grace is what Simone Biles granted to herself, and that should be an example to all of us.
For me life is too precious, too valuable, to be turned into one big game. Life is found in love, mercy, and the grace to know when the smaller things – like winning a competition – should be put aside. Paul wrote, When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.(1 Corinthians 13:11) Perhaps that is what Simone is teaching us today. Grace is the only thing.
Tim Olson – Lead Pastor