Lance Armstrong and the Grief Cycle

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Lance Armstrong is all over the news, as all of you know by now, and as several of you have pointed out to me already, since Armstrong makes an appearance in Hannibal and Me.

The premise of Hannibal and Me, to recap, is that triumph and disaster are impostors, as Rudyard Kipling said so sublimely.

So those of you who have not yet read my book might assume that Lance Armstrong was included to show how his triumphs — ie, all his victories on the bike — were impostors, meaning fake. Reprehensibly fake.

They may well have been. (My understanding, by the way, is that there is still no proof that he was doping, even though most people may now assume that he did, because he has decided to stop contesting the charges.)

But as those of you who have already read the book know, and the rest of you might now be surprised to find out, Armstrong was chosen for the opposite reason: to show how disasters can be impostors.

The disaster in his case, with which so many people can identify, is called cancer.

Armstrong and Kübler-Ross

I chose Armstrong as one of my examples to illustrate how people move through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “stages of grieving”, and in particular the stages of Anger, and also Depression, and then Acceptance.

So he appears in Chapter 7, Dealing with Disaster, in which the main characters are Quintus Fabius Maximus, Eleanor Roosevelt and Ernest Shackleton.

Here are excerpts:

… anger usually begins with the question of “Why me?” Lance Armstrong is a good example. When he was twenty-five, his career as a bike racer was “moving along a perfect arc of success,” with sponsorships, a large house on a lake, and his own powerboat and Jet Skis. Then he began to cough up blood. Soon one testicle swelled to the size of an orange. He found out that he had testicular cancer. The doctors gave him at best a 40 percent chance of surviving. He was diagnosed on a Wednesday, had his testicle removed on Thursday, masturbated into a cup on Saturday (because he would soon be sterile), started chemotherapy on Monday, and discovered on the next Thursday that the cancer had already spread to his lungs and brain. Every devastating day was followed by an even more terrible day. And Armstrong became angry. “I was fighting mad, swinging mad, mad in general, mad at being in a bed, mad at having bandages around my head, mad at the tubes that tied me down. So mad I was beside myself, so mad I almost began to cry.” … [pp 154-155]

… Lance Armstrong also suffered a bout of preparatory depression. “It’s all over. I’m sick, I’m never going to race again, and I’m going to lose everything.” His depression felt “as though all my blood started flowing in the wrong direction.”

Eventually, however, some grief-stricken individuals will arrive at a state of acceptance. As Kübler-Ross puts it, “Acceptance should not be mistake for a happy stage. It is almost devoid of feelings.” But it is the stage where the person is ready to move on…

Lance Armstrong accepted his cancer relatively quickly. He simply “decided not to be afraid.” Then he confronted his cancer. “Each time I was more fully diagnosed, I asked my doctors hard questions. What are my chances?” He also personalized the disease and made it his “enemy,” as though he were facing Hannibal. [In the surrounding passages, I am comparing Armstrong to Fabius, after the initial losses to Hannibal.] “It was me versus him or her or it — being the disease — so I absolutely hated him or her or it, and when the blood work came back, or the tumor markers cam back [saying] that I was getting better, I felt like I’m winning, the scoreboard says I’m winning.”… [p. 157]

My thoughts TODAY

Do I regret including Lance Armstrong in the book now?

Not really. The mistake was to include any living person. When drawing lessons from the life trajectories of people in the past, it is best to make sure that those lives are entirely, not partially, past. For human lives, while they unfold, have that way of surprising us (which is of course the point of the book).

So I had similar issues with Tiger Woods and Steve Jobs (though not with Amy Tan so far), who also appear in the book, and who also made startling news while the book was being printed.

The idea of including Armstrong predates the current controversy. It goes back to my reading — years and years ago, when I had not even heard rumors of his alleged doping — of his book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. I then wrote the passage (which quotes mainly from that book) in 2008 or 2009, when the rumors were just that.

So he fits. Except that he now fits in more ways than one. And if I did my job well in the book, the reader, by the time he or she arrives at the passage, will have got that bigger point, and will still find Armstrong’s victory over cancer uplifting.

And, who knows, Armstrong may turn his life around a few more times yet. The Greeks called that peripateia. Turning things around — upwards and downwards — is what the people in my book do. As do its readers.

Dealing with disaster


Chapter 7 in Hannibal and Me is titled “Dealing with disaster”. So, how does the Hannibalic story tell us to deal with it?

First, a reminder about the premise of my book: I use stories of real people to make universal points. Put differently, I use the people in the stories to personify lessons (but you, the reader, ultimately have to adapt the lessons to your own life.).

The first personification of responding to disaster in life is named Quintus Fabius Maximus. (From the picture above, you may have guessed that by the end of the chapter he will have a “twin” in Ernest Shackleton, as I explain below).

As I introduce Fabius on page 144 ff., he

came from one of the oldest and noblest families of Rome, the Fabii, who claimed they could trace their ancestry back to Hercules. But Hercules was not exactly the first image that came to mind when looking at Fabius himself. When he was a boy, one of his nicknames was Verrucosus — “Warty” — because he had a big wart on his lip. Another nickname in his youth was Ocivula, “Lamb,” because he had an unusually mild temper for an aristocratic Roman boy. He did everything slowly. He spoke slowly, walked slowly, learned slowly. He was bad at sports in a society that was all about athletic, virile, and martial games. Young Fabius was in almost every way the exact opposite of young Hannibal. …

And yet the Romans gradually changed their minds about the warty, lamblike Fabius. As the boy grew into a man, that same slowness began to look like steadiness and prudence…

He was already in his forties when [the Romans] first elected him consul. As senator or elder statesman, five times as consul and twice as elected “dictator,” Fabius remained one of the republic’s leaders for the rest of his life.

By the time the young and dashing Hannibal crossed the Alps into Italy, Fabius was already in his sixties. … Fabius had never encountered such an enemy. What, Fabius reflected in his slow and methodical way, should he, and Rome, make of Hannibal?

And then, of course, the disasters began. Battle after battle in which Hannibal routed Roman armies that outnumbered him. Rout is the wrong word. Hannibal exterminated Roman armies, he depleted the Roman population of men, of senators, of sons, of fathers. From the Roman point of view, Hannibal represented the extinction of Rome.

How Hannibal did that — how he won those battles — I deal with in the preceding two chapters. But in Chapter 7, I’m looking at these events purely from Fabius’s side, so that we can understand how to deal with disaster.

And Fabius offers us a psychologically layered answer. Page 146:

… The younger Roman leaders found this hard to admit, but Fabius simply accepted that Hannibal was superior on the battlefield. That premise led Fabius to a simple but shocking conclusion: if going to battle against Hannibal meant losing, it was clearly not a good policy to go to battle against him at all. …

In these extreme circumstances, Fabius decided, the strategic definition of success was no longer victory but stalemate. In his slow and methodical way, Fabius thus determined that Hannibal’s stunning triumphs on the battlefield might yet lead to nothing. They might be impostors.

So what were the elements of his response, of “the Fabian response” in the language of my archetypes?

Page 153:

There are two aspects to a Fabian character that make it resilient and that you might remember if ever disaster should strike you. The first is the ability to accept reality for what it is. The second is the ability to stop resisting reality and instead to flow with it until circumstances begin to change.

1) Acceptance

From page 154:

Shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance: these are the stages that make up the human “grief cycle” described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a twentieth-century Swiss doctor who spent her time caring for dying people…

Losing your job, losing your house to foreclosure, being diagnosed with cancer, getting divorced — any bereavement, failure, or other disaster triggers the psychological responses of the grief cycle. But people move through the grief cycle in different ways. Some progress swiftly, others get stuck at one stage, and yet others cycle back and forth through them. …

Page 157:

Eventually, however, some grief-stricken individuals will arrive at a state of acceptance. As Kübler-Ross puts it, “Acceptance should not be mistaken for a happy stage. It is almost devoid of feelings.” But it is the stage where the person is ready to move on…

I illustrate this wrenching process in this chapter by looking at Eleanor Roosevelt, who suffered through the grief-cycle after discovering the love letters between her husband and their secretary, Lucy Mercer. Roosevelt literally cried and raged it out, while sitting for hours and days and weeks in a park, gazing at the female face of a statue called … Grief.

2) Flowing (or “non-doing”)

As Fabius himself said (to a consul who would soon be killed because his co-commander refused to heed this advice): “Can you then doubt that inactivity is the way to defeat an enemy?”

Page 158:

One translation of Minucius’s [a Roman rival to Fabius] taunt about Fabius’s do-nothing tactics into Chinese is wu wei, which means “nondoing” or “doing by not doing.” Wu wei happens to be a central concept of “the way,” the Tao, in Chinese philosophy. This Taoist notion of wu wei, nondoing, is often mistaken for passivity, which it is not. Instead, nondoing is really a very active way of letting inevitable things happen without wasting energy resisting them, instead bringing one’s own position into harmony with this flow of nature. The principle of wu wei might say, for instance, that is is better to use a rushing stream to spin a wheel and transfer its energy than to block the stream and try to make it stop flowing. Or it might say that a skipper is better off tacking through the wind than trying to go against it, which would be futile. Indeed the best skippers often look, as Fabius did, as though they were “doing nothing”….

I then illustrate this point by looking at Ernest Shackleton, who (page 161),

decided to cross the entire Antarctic continent on foot. It was as daring in 1914 as it had been in 218 BCE for Hannibal to Cross the Alps…

But, as you all know, Shackleton failed at his quest, when his ship, the Endurance, got stuck in the ice.

Page 162:

Shackleton’s first reaction was to order his crew to do what heroes normally do: fight. The men climbed onto the ice and hacked away at it with picks, trying to open a sea-lane. But it was useless…

They now spent the Antarctic winter on their ship, which was frozen into its ice pack. No light, eternal darkness. All the stages of Kübler-Ross’s Grief Cycle.

Then the ice crushed the Endurance, and the men watched as their ship sank. Page 164:

Suddenly, the men were all alone, floating on ice somewhere near the South Pole.

Shackleton announced new plans of daring and heroic resistance: they would march, while dragging their own life boats, across the ice toward an islet, covering roughly the distance from San Francisco to Loas Angeles. Page 164-165:

After three hours of hard toil, they had moved one mile. It began to snow. The next day they tried again, but the snow was like glue. … The next morning they tried again. Shackleton went ahead and scanned the ice. He saw pressure ridges where colliding ice floes had formed mountains that looked as forbidding as the Alps.

Shackleton turned around and walked back to the group. He took deep breaths of the icy air and prepared to announce his decision, which he knew was probably the weightiest of his entire life. At first, he had thought that attacking the enemy was the best thing to do, both for morale and for their chances of survival. But he now thought that he might have been in denial. During the night, he had accepted reality, and seeing the endless ice mountains around them had confirmed it. Instead of attacking and wasting caloric energy to make at most a mile  a day toward who knew where, they would instead … do nothing.

And to understand why this saved him, why this turned his disaster into one of the greatest triumphs in human history, you have to know something about the ice. For that, you’ll have to read the book.

The ice … the Tao.

Fabius, Roosevelt, Shackleton … you. 

To be continued.