Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

The cost of personal courage

I have been following, from some distance, the hue-and-cry over Simone Biles's removing herself from competition on the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team.  Biles was completely up-front about why.  "You have to be there 100%," she told reporters.  "If not, you get hurt.  Today has been really stressful.  I was shaking.  I couldn't nap.  I have never felt like this going into a competition, and I tried to go out and have fun.  But once I came out, I was like, 'No.  My mental is not there.'  It's been a long year, and I think we are too stressed out.  We should be out here having fun.  Sometimes that's not the case."

Well, immediately the pundits started weighing in.  Charlie Kirk called her a "selfish sociopath" and bemoaned the fact that "we are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles."  Clay Travis suggested she be removed from future competition because she couldn't be relied on.  Piers Morgan was perhaps the worst -- not surprising given his ugly commentary in the past.  "Are 'mental health issues' now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport?  What a joke...  Sorry Simone Biles, but there's nothing heroic or brave about quitting because you're not having 'fun' – you let down your team-mates, your fans and your country."

And so on.  The criticism came fast and furious.  There were voices who spoke up in support of her decision, but it seemed to me the nastiness was a lot louder.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons AgĂȘncia Brasil Fotografias, Simone Biles Rio 2016e, CC BY 2.0]

Or maybe I'm just sensitive.  Other writers have spoken with more authority about the rigors of Olympic training and gymnastics in particular, not only the physical aspects but the mental, topics which I am unqualified to discuss.  But whatever the context, there is one thing I'm dead certain about.

If someone says they're struggling mentally and/or emotionally, you fucking well believe them.

I have fought mental illness all my life.  I've been open about this here before; I have come to realize it is no more shameful than any other chronic condition.  I do know, however, first-hand how debilitating anxiety can be.  I've also suffered from moderate-to-severe depression, fortunately now ameliorated by medications and a family who is understanding and supportive.  So at present, I'm doing okay.

But it hasn't always been that way.  For much of my life, I was in a situation where "suck it up and deal" and "be tough, be a man" and "you should be thankful for what you have" were the consistent messages.  Therapy was for the weak; psychiatric care (and meds) were for people who were crazy.  There's nothing wrong with you, I was told.  You just spend too much time feeling sorry for yourself and worrying about things you can't control.

The result?  Twice I was suicidal, once at age seventeen and once at age twenty, to the point that I had a plan and a method and was ready to go for it.  That I didn't -- fortunately -- is really only due to one thing; I was scared.  I spent a good bit of my first marriage haunted by suicidal ideation, and there the only thing that kept me alive was my commitment to my students, and later, to my children.

But I thought about it.  Every.  Single.  Damn.  Day.

That a bunch of self-appointed arbiters of proper behavior have told this remarkable young woman "No, I don't care how you feel or what you're going through, get back in there and keep performing for us" is somewhere beyond reprehensible.  I don't even have a word strong enough for it.  If you haven't experienced the hell of anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, you have zero right to criticize someone else, especially when she's doing what people in a bad mental space should be doing -- advocating for herself, setting her limits, and admitting when she can't manage to do something.

I wish I had known how to do that when I was twenty-four (Simone Biles's age).  But I was still a good fifteen years from understanding the mental illness I have and seeking out help -- and unashamedly establishing my own personal boundaries.

So to all the critics out there who think they know what Simone Biles should do better than she does -- shut the fuck up.  I presume you wouldn't go up to a person with a serious physical illness and have the temerity to tell them what they can and can't do, and to pass judgment on them if they don't meet your standards.  This is no different.  We have a mental health crisis in this country; skyrocketing incidence of diagnosed mental illnesses and uncounted numbers who go undiagnosed and unaided, and a health care system that is unable (or unwilling) to address these problems effectively.  What Simone Biles did was an act of bravery, and she deserves unequivocal support for it.  The cost of personal courage shouldn't be nasty invective from a bunch of self-appointed authorities who have never set foot on the road she has walked.

And those who can't understand that should at least have the good grace to keep their damn opinions to themselves.


One of the characteristics which is -- as far as we know -- unique to the human species is invention.

Given a problem, we will invent a tool to solve it.  We're not just tool users; lots of animal species, from crows to monkeys, do that.  We're tool innovators.  Not that all of these tools have been unequivocal successes -- the internal combustion engine comes to mind -- but our capacity for invention is still astonishing.

In The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another, author Ainissa Ramirez takes eight human inventions (clocks, steel rails, copper telegraph wires, photographic film, carbon filaments for light bulbs, hard disks, scientific labware, and silicon chips) and looks not only at how they were invented, but how those inventions changed the world.  (To take one example -- consider how clocks and artificial light changed our sleep and work schedules.)

Ramirez's book is a fascinating lens into how our capacity for innovation has reflected back and altered us in fundamental ways.  We are born inventors, and that ability has changed the world -- and, in the end, changed ourselves along with it.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


  1. Thank you for writing about mental health and acknowledging your own struggles. I think this is something we should all be making more of an effort to do, and I have failed miserably in this area. Even though I know better, I think I've convinced myself that nobody wants to hear about anybody else's problems. This has been one factor that has prevented me from addressing my own issues. Clearly, more people talking about this stuff can help to break down the stigma that persists and that some of us have unfortunately internalized. Maybe I'll even be able to do so one of these days.

  2. Holy Shit Gordon. I guess if you can use the F word I can use the S word. Words. Your powerful words. Like you I have also suffered all my life with mental and emotional issues -- first those of my father who nearly killed me throwing me across the room and knocking me out when I was barely a toddler, again, and again, and again. Then my mother's mental illness came into play when she determined that practicing how she was going to kill us and then herself in a murder-suicide thing would help us to get away from my father without fearing the exit. This was the start of 74 years of hell. My own genetic predisposition for depression was *enhanced* by circumstances which provided an additional layer of Complex PTSD (CPTSD), and an eventual co-morbid diagnosis of dysthymia. Like you, I had two suicidal ideations in my younger life - one at about 18 and one in my late 30s. I did go through with it, but as you can tell, was unsuccessful. Yesterday I learned of a different name they're using now for dysthymia -- High Functioning Depression Also like you, I've had a lifetime of the same shallow, hollow, ridiculous comments meant to shame me into going beyond what is reasonable to endure so that they felt better. Even some who think they know because, "I had thus and such happen to me and I'm fine." Oh how I love that one. I haven't had the words or the courage to use them to defend myself, but your openness over the years has helped me to have the bare beginnings of a voice. And with your permission, I say to all of them, "You ignorant, pompous -----! Shut the fuck up! Get a damn clue! And may you somehow walk in my shoes and REALLY get it!" I left out the deleted expletive because I can't think of one bad enough. So bad that it has no redeeming qualities. "Bastard" comes to mind, but that's really more on their parents. "Ass hole" could work, but even an asshole is an important part of our bodies without which we wouldn't survive. So whatever they are, every place they are, here's a single digit salute from me. And may you rot in the hell I live in. (I'm not brave enough to sign my real name, but you've read enough of my writing that I think you'll know it's me, thanking you AGAIN!)

    1. I am in awe that you are with us, and grateful that you remain to put words to the struggles you’ve endured. May you feel the virtual hugs I am sending your way.

  3. Gordon, I could not possibly agree with you any more. Thank you.

    Even putting aside the longer term question of mental health, I think it's still completely unfair to criticize Biles or her decision.

    Remember Chuck Knobauch or Rick Ankiel, baseball players who had "the yips" and lost their ability to throw to first or find the strike zone? Think of a novelist with writer's block or a salesperson who just doesn't feel like they have "it" that day.

    Now put that in the context of a sport where if you don't feel 100% confident of where you are in the air, you've got a pretty good chance of ending up with a really bad injury. Simone did what was best for both her short-term and long-term health, what gave her team the better chance to medal (and they did), and very bravely spoke out about mental health in sports.

    Anyone willing to flip through the air between bars like that is brave, but I think she's even braver today.