The Olympics, Mental Health, and the Gospel

Two years ago, a debate ignited around Simone Biles and the summer Olympics. The world champion gymnast who many had come to see as invincible withdrew from the team final competition to focus on her mental health. Biles later revealed that she was experiencing what gymnasts often call the “twisties,” a feeling of not having one’s mind and body in sync. As some commentators coldly critiqued the once-in-a-generation athlete, many others rose to her defense. She was shining a much-needed spotlight on the importance of mental health. She was reminding us of something we are prone to forget: athletes are human beings too.

Two weeks ago, two-time Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin missed a gate in her slalom event, disqualifying her from the race. She then pulled off the course and sat down in the snow for a while. She had already made a disqualifying mistake in her other best event days earlier, the giant slalom. The conversation about mental health and American athletes returned.

I haven’t been following the Beijing Olympics and was only made aware of Shiffrin’s story secondhand as I listened to political commentators on a podcast carefully discuss this recent merger of sports and the therapeutic. One thing I know for sure: It’s hard to have a carefully nuanced conversation about anything these days. Nevertheless, I don’t think we should stop trying.

Mental health is vitally important, and I am thankful that the shameful stigma often associated with these kinds of struggles is being removed. I pray that many will follow the examples of Biles and others and open up about their struggles so that they can receive help and healing. I also hope that these high-profile instances of genuine struggle will remind us that we are finite human creatures. As gold-medalist American snowboarder Chloe Kim has recently said, “It’s unfair to be expected to be perfect.” Amen.

However, I wonder if something else is going on as well. Robert Pondiscio has recently argued that contemporary education fetishizes the bad and the broken in contemporary life. He finds evidence in Young Adult fiction and entertainment as well as in recent shifts in philosophy of education. He writes that the new emphasis on “social and emotional learning” (SEL) encourages teachers to “borrow ideas and tactics from therapy, psychology, social work, and even the clergy, with teaching and education increasingly coming to resemble those fields.”

What is the result of merging the therapeutic with education? Pondiscio writes, “Acting as unlicensed and poorly trained therapists carries the risk of pathologizing childhood, encouraging educators to view children—particularly children from disadvantaged subgroups—not as capable and resilient individuals, but as traumatized and fragile.”

In other words, we are training our children to interact with the world through a therapeutic lens. While honesty and openness about mental health struggles needs to be encouraged, there’s a fine line between that and celebration of mental health struggles as a virtue. We seem to be moving from the false extreme of hiding mental health struggles out of a fear of shame to the opposite false extreme of wearing mental health struggles as a badge of honor. With this new trend, the pressure exists not to hide our struggles, but to discover them buried down deep in the subconscious. Mature people are people who struggle. If I want to be taken seriously, I need to prove that I struggle too.

A mother of a teenager recently reached out to me to say that she sees her children struggling with this especially on social media. While the dark side of social media has come under scrutiny, I haven’t seen this particular phenomenon explored. Social media pressures us to present ourselves to the world as a certain type of person. If mental health struggles are viewed socially as a mark of maturity, then teens and others will face pressure to show the world that they indeed struggle.

I’ve seen this recently in pastoral ministry as well. I’ve seen a plethora of articles online about pastors and mental health. Again, I’m grateful that pastors are no longer hiding these struggles, but I’m also concerned that that there’s an expectation developing that serious pastors be depressed pastors. As a pastor myself, I’m keenly aware of the unique struggles of pastoral ministry and the tendency pastor’s face toward burnout. However, I’ve also met lazy pastors who in the name of avoiding burnout neglect their churches. We have to strive for nuance and balance on these complex issues.

Christians face our own version of this dilemma. A few years ago, I was meeting with a couple of close friends for discipleship, and, as was our custom, we began our meeting with prayer. Both of them opened up about some very personal struggles, and when it became my turn to update, I quickly realized that I didn’t really have anything on the level of what they had shared. At that point a battle ensued within my heart to find something with enough struggle-worthiness to share. I feared that I would lose authenticity points if I admitted that everything was actually going pretty well that particular week.

When struggle becomes a virtue, there is no longer any incentive to grow past our struggles. It is tempting to form an identity out of our suffering. We don’t want to move past our struggles because that would disqualify us. It may sound crazy, but I believe there are multitudes of struggling Christians who have embraced the identity of being a struggling Christian to the degree that they never want to stop being a struggling Christian. They don’t want to improve. Struggling is who they are. To cease to struggle would feel like losing a huge part of themselves.

The gospel frees us to be honest about our struggles. After all, we’re all finite creatures, we’ve all sinned, and we’re all at different stages in the process of being conformed into the image of Christ. But the gospel also calls us—and empowers us—to not stay there. Let’s be honest about our struggles, but let’s not turn our struggles into a virtue.

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