*This piece was originally written in January 2013 for a blog I had at that time exploring the intersection between sport, pain, and what it means to suffer.
Although the content of this entry does not relate to the blog’s purpose I feel I must comment on Lance Armstrong. Like so many of us I was an Armstrong fan. In college I read his first book and was inspired not only to start racing, but to pick up the fight against cancer.
During my junior year of high school I landed a job at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines, IA. I wanted the job because I had become interested in medicine following a high school anatomy and physiology course. My position was as a radiology transporter, which is exactly as it sounds–I would pick up patients in a wheelchair or gurney and bring them down to the radiology department for their test. It was rather mundane, but I enjoyed talking with the patients. It was like speed dating, but with the ill and no prospects for a long term relationship. I had an elevator ride to lift their spirits. Unfortunately, the patients were often left feeling I was more likely to take their lives from my awful steering than the illnesses that brought them into the hospital.
A patient I met has been in my thoughts as of late. I recall that he needed a chest x-ray, the most routine of studies. He was 31 years old. I arrived to find him already sitting in a wheelchair in the hallway outside of his room. Standing behind him was his mother. He had dark hair with youthful features, but appeared infinitely vulnerable as well. His blood shot eyes drew caution from me. There was a box of tissues on his lap. His mother had been crying too, but standing behind him with her hands on the wheelchair there was a sense of protection–she was not going to let anything harm him, not even the unseen.
I do not know where my sense of compassion came from at that moment. I wonder sometimes if my 17 year old self would have made a better physician than I am now, but I recall asking the nurse if there is something I should know before transporting him down to the radiology department. I did not want to say anything inappropriate in light of whatever was saddening him. The nurse told me that he had just been informed he had leukemia. Within that moment years of angst, fear, and sadness came flooding back to me. In the 6th grade a friend of mine died of cancer. We were not particularly close, but his death affected me greatly. For several years thereafter I was terrified of getting cancer. Daily, I would fear any new sensation or pain as a sign of malignancy. It took me a long time to get over his death and the irrational fears I was marred by.
There in the hallway of the hospital it all came rushing back. I do not know why it was this particular patient that became the unearthing of my dormant struggles. I had transported other cancer patients before. Perhaps, it was his age or the acuity of the news of his diagnosis. I recall excusing myself momentarily and stepping into the galley. I wept. My eyes were soon as blood shot as his. It was at that moment that I vowed to myself to help fight cancer in some way.
After reading Armstrong’s book my sophomore year of college and discovering the mission of the Lance Armstrong Foundation I found the means for fulfilling that vow. I set out to fundraise for the LAF and I did, raising several thousand dollars and traveling to Austin, TX to participate in the Ride for the Roses. Lance inspired me to fulfill the vow, he motivated me to ride, and he was also an impetus to pursue medicine. I am grateful for that inspiration.
There is no doubt he is an incredible athlete. He has obviously done an extraordinary service to cancer survivors and to supporting cancer research. I feel no need to critique his motives for doping or slander his character. Rather, I see this debacle as having led to a better understanding of my own intrinsic motivators. What I have learned is the obvious flaw in beholding others as heroes and utilizing their lives as models for my own. I admired Armstrong for his altruism while still dominating in cycling. With the current understanding of his character flaws and his means of winning should I still admire him for some traits while ignoring the others? I do not believe I can. The ability to pick and choose ideal human traits from our heroes and package them into an avatar for us to emulate is a ridiculous notion. It will inevitably lead to the exact end which we are trying to avoid — failure.
Why do we look to others for inspiration? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I would argue that instead of looking for heroes as a source of inspiration, seek to inspire others. It is an active rather than passive role and therefore more difficult. However, in doing so you reciprocally manifest those traits that you admire in others. Armstrong is not a hero to me anymore and not because of the doping scandal. I can see him now for who he is and who he is not. It is the obvious dichotomy in all our lives — one that we don’t freely accept. Perhaps, the denigration that besets are fallen heroes is a reflection of our personal self-loathing. If that is indeed the case then we must be willing to acknowledge and accept our own flaws and shortcomings or continue to follow the brand of the modern hero.