Arlington Avenue is a winding, 9% grade-steep street that snakes up the Southside hills of Pittsburgh. It is popular with local cyclists and happens to run right above my house on the slopes. It offers one of many amazing overlooks of the city but without the glitz of some of the more official scenic sights. In the days shortly after the U.S. went to war with Iraq, somebody spray-painted an American flag and the words “mindless followers” on one of the guardrail walls. The street, as you see, has a tone of non-conforming defiance to it.
A few weeks ago, on a cool-down walk with my German shepherd, Sherpa, I stumbled upon a discarded Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong yellow bracelet, right near that graffiti that I just mentioned. Knowing about Armstrong’s publicity troubles, I was intrigued: has the publicity crap finally hit the fan? I picked up the wrist band, brought it home, washed it and started wearing it. This was my first Livestrong meme-leash and I decided to make my own protest out of it. Against what? Well, that’s the point of this writing. Hang on with me for a paragraph or two as I set it up.
This Sunday morning I wake up to the following New York Times front page headline: “A Champion Against Cancer, Now Under Siege.” I glance at the article and sense that it promises a psychological autopsy of a near-fallen hero and dive in. I am not disappointed. The article quotes Bill Strickland, a cyclist-writer, who offers an astute diagnosis of Armstrong’s mindware: “He’s the most binary guy I’ve ever met. […] He told me his motto is Win/lose, live/die. He equates wining with living and losing with dying.”
If Strickland is right in his analysis, then Armstrong is a classic perfectionist. Perfectionism – a nearly “endemic” problem of the Western mind – runs on binary, dualistic, dichotomous either/or, all-or-nothing mentality. Perfectionism is a way of strong-arming yourself into endless compliance with uncritically internalized “shoulds” and “musts,” such as the one that plagued Ricky Bobby’s mind (played by Will Ferrell) in Talladega Nights: “if you ain’t first, you’re last.”
So, at least from a distance Armstrong seems to be an all-or-nothing guy in an all-or-nothing world, a binary hero in a binary culture of black-and-white mentality that can’t stand the confusion of the gray.
Perfectionistic leaders create perfectionistic followers. Perfectionistic followers demand all-or-nothing perfection to worship. Just listen to this projected binary reaction: the article mentions “a consultant to nonprofit organizations, including Livestrong, whose father died of leukemia,” with Hodgkins’s disease himself, who anticipates both a mixture of professional doom and personal emotional crisis: “I’d be devastated if, because of his reputation, the foundation was hurt. […] That would be a really sad day for everybody.”
Notice the neurotic catastrophizing that comes with this kind of all-or-nothing thinking. “I’d be devastated,” “a really sad day for everybody.” Really?! We aren’t talking about the flood in Pakistan or the oil spill in the Gulf, after all. That’s the problem with a binary, dualistic thought-style: it finds devastation in the most trivial ebb and flow of ever changing life. I don’t know if Armstrong doped or not, and I frankly don’t care, not because I am not a cyclist, but because I am a “recovering dualist.” The reason why I picked up the Livestrong yellow band that was most likely discarded by another binary fan, is because I’ve been trying to fight a cancer of a different kind, a cancer of dualistic thinking.
This “either/or,” binary mode of thinking is the cancer of mind that is eating the West alive. Perfectionism divides us and fragments us until we can no longer stand ourselves. Binary evaluations of self lead to self-loathing, stress, anxiety, and depression. Binary evaluations of others result in a deficit of cultural compassion. As I see it (and notice my self-checking tentativeness as I proclaim the following): “livestrong” nations are weak-minded, even if they are strong-bodied. Reality is neither this, nor that; it is way, way too complex to be boxed into naively oversimplified categories of “good” or “bad.”
Reality changes nonstop, without bothering to consult us. To survive it, we have to be a step ahead of our time-specific categories. We have to un-anchor ourselves from the illusions of certainty and to accept our inevitable existential blindness. We are all riding a 9% grade hill into a hypothetical future that is never guaranteed and cannot be known because it doesn’t exist yet. To survive this grand Tour de la Vie, we have to livewise, not livestrong.
As for Lance himself, here’s a pointer for you, friend, from a once perfectionistically competitive lance-corporal in the Soviet military: get yourself some mindful followers and keep up with your work on cancer. I know you’ve always done your best, doing it now and always will, as long as you are alive. Lead with compassion and godspeed to you in whatever you choose to race next.
Livewise wrist bracelets are available in any color (except for black and white), but are mostly in gray. Seriously, there are no livewise bracelets. And that’s the very essence of our problems.
Somov, P. (2011). Livewise. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 27, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/mindful-living/2010/08/livewise/