A good friend of mine grew up playing team sports. He often uses this analogy when talking with me about his approach to life: In sports, you learn how to get back up and brush yourself off. And he often jokes with me: If sportspeople all had your personality, we’d have mass team suicides after every loss.
I am a tad bit on the emotional, sensitive side (haha). My emotions often dominate me, and they are incredibly strong. So strong, they come on like an attack. Sometimes they prostrate me.
I grew up skiing. I skied with my family, but skiing, at least at the recreational level, is an inherently solitary sport. It’s you and the mountain, and the overseeing sky. It’s you against yourself, seeking to do better on the next run. There are no losses or wins, just you trying to feel that bounce in your turns. Sure, you fall. But once you reach a certain level, you do so rarely if ever. Which is a good thing when you’re going 20 miles an hour.
Skiing frees me. Team games, when I did them in gym class, were like playing a sport called “extreme stress.” I worried about making mistakes and being made fun of. Which is an almost certainty when you are a pale, shy, nerdy little girl without much skill. Even the gym teacher despised me. He was a buff, macho guy who was, it was rumored, biased against honors kids. He once called me out during a basketball game in a tone clearly meant to convey both disgust and dismissal: “You can’t run with the ball like that, little girl!”
Which is all to say, team sports and I never got on. I don’t think that’s the only reason I didn’t acquire much emotional resilience, though. I was sensitive and shy, and my parents did not press me to do things that were so obviously against my nature as team sports. Nor did they send me marching back to piano lessons when a mean teacher made me cry (actually they did make me finish out the course of lessons they’d paid for, but then let me quit). Their reasoning was probably that I was not very interested in piano. All I wanted to do was read. Read and read and read some more. And they let me. But I would have benefited from some lessons on not giving in to feelings of hurt and victimization. (I must stress that I do not intend “victimization” here to mean I often feel victimized by others – I am more of a self-blamer; it’s typical of people with depression to internalize anger at being hurt into self-loathing and, well, depression. However, it cannot be denied that I do place myself in a position of emotional victimization – again, not so much with regard to other people, as to my own reactions to traumas.)
Yes, as a child I was coddled emotionally. To my detriment. Not that I blame my parents – they are simply very gentle people who believed children should be allowed to pursue their own interests and didn’t quite understand that children must be taught discipline and endurance in the face of failure.
The end result, however, is that I’m not very good at getting up and brushing myself off. Not that I’m a quitter – I am still hammering away at a seemingly unfinishable dissertation, after all. But I do tend to let feelings of failure roost in the self-worth part of my brain until it resembles an overcrowded bat house. A loss, to me, feels permanent. My friend may be exaggerating when he says sportspeople with my personality would kill themselves after losing, but they might miss practice for awhile because anxiety makes it impossible to get out of bed. Or they might develop a phobia of their sport that makes it difficult for them to enthusiastically engage in it thereafter.
And how ridiculous would that be? Even as I write it, I roll my eyes. What kind of self-indulgent, self-important sportsperson would react this way? And yet, it’s often my reaction to traumas in my life. (Hmm…I detect some self-loathing in this paragraph.)
But I want to be fair to myself. My struggles with depression and anxiety do make dealing with things so very difficult. I am most decidedly disadvantaged by this when compared to people without these particular handicaps. And I do always eventually drag myself to my feet. Brush myself off with lacerated hands. Stumble forward and profess my faith through debilitating pain. (I’m not exaggerating – this is exactly how it feels.) Again and again. And then again. Honestly – just to balance this admittedly dramatic and dire picture with some humor – it’s a little like that soccer goalie who keeps getting hit in the face. Except without a bunch of people cheering me on.
It may appear to someone like my friend that I missed out on some important life lessons, such as resilience, that children learn through participating in team sports. I can’t argue with that. But I’ve learned some of those lessons in other ways. Life itself can sometimes feel like a team sport to which I am not naturally suited but required to play. It necessitates a kind of strength and endurance that my friend, who lets things slide right off his back, might not be able to summon despite all his team sportiness. I don’t really know, though. Perhaps all of us, or most, are born with the capacity for such strength and endurance, and just use and express them in different ways. I wish my friend could appreciate that I, too, have these qualities. Even though it often appears that I do not.
And, I must add, while he no longer plays team sports, I continue to ski.