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The Rough Road of Vulnerability and Courage

The recent passing of Olympic bicyclist and Stanford University student Kelly Catlin has brought sharp attention to the world of the elite student/athlete. I've known many who have studied with me and taught me about the disturbing pressures in their attempts to engage at the highest levels of sports and academics at the same time. Catlin called this, "juggling knives," and warned that one could easily fall on you.

When one falls and you survive, the way back to well being is tough. One student/athlete, Jordan Williamson, has endured a rough fall from grace and lived to tell about it. He took several classes with me and now regularly comes to my classes to share his amazing story with younger students. Here is his story that I am now retelling.

"The kick is no good!"

As the announcer's shocked voice was heard across the nation, Jordan Williamson's life was drastically altered. The highly recruited high school star, once lofty in the college football world as Stanford University's star kicker, had suddenly fallen to earth. His landing was hard. On national television in the Fiesta Bowl his team had marched downfield into perfect field goal range, run down the clock to nearly zero and turned the game over to Jordan to win. Supremely confident in his abilities Jordan trotted out onto the field fully expecting a successful outcome. He was as stunned as everyone in the stadium and those watching the game on television when he hooked the ball and it sailed wide to the left. The game then went into overtime and when he was given another opportunity to win the game he missed again. His team eventually lost. In the locker room Jordan wept uncontrollably.

What followed was an amazing series of events in which there was an outpouring of sympathy and support for Jordan. His parents even remarked that it renewed their faith in humanity. Everyone assumed that Jordan would be all right and recover from his big miss. But not everyone was supportive. He also received hate mail and people even told him that he should die so that Stanford could get a new kicker. Jordan isolated himself in his room. He drank heavily hoping to relieve the pain and stopped going to classes, giving professors excuses of headaches and stomachaches.

"For months I was depressed and did not want to go out in public. Many nights I would fall asleep crying replaying the kick in my head and wishing that it was just a bad dream. I drank alcohol practically every night to try and ease the mental pain that I had. I didn’t want to be awake."

In the depth of his despair Jordan discovered the Serenity Prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

The courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference

"It helped me to realize that I needed to stop wishing that things had turned out differently and accept what had happened. And that gave me the courage to begin to live my life again." He suddenly had an impulse to put on his Fiesta Bowl hat and go outside because it was a symbol of his failure and therefore something he could no longer hide.

"I decided to stop hiding and acknowledge what had happened. I did this by wearing the Fiesta Bowl hat pretty much wherever I went. I showed my scars and let it be known to everyone that I was accepting reality. By showing my vulnerability it seemed that society, for the most part, put the negativity to rest. While the pain was still there, it was much more dim. I showed myself and others that I accepted myself as a human being who is not perfect and makes mistakes and sometimes fails miserably. This was the beginning of my healing."

Nearly a year later Jordan had another major test. In the biggest game of the year Stanford had tied Oregon with no time left on the clock. Jordan was once again sent out to win the game. This time the kick was good and the celebration was joyous. Jordan feels that it was going through the depths of suffering that enabled him to reach the height of joy. He also believes that success was not what healed him; it was simply icing on the cake.

It was accepting himself in all his vulnerability that gave him the courage to move on in life boldly with new insight and understanding of himself and others. It was finding meaning in life's struggles that ultimately enriched his life. He realizes how much he has grown personally from his struggles in ways that would have been unattainable only experiencing success.

Jordan sees his newfound humility as a blessing and is inspired to share his story with others. In my classes his openness has encouraged others to share their own stories of vulnerability, building connections and community. His experience of struggle has awakened in him a new sense of compassion for his fellow humans who also suffer. He wants to use his experience so that others will learn to accept the bitterness of life easier and less painfully and possibly even see it as a blessing.

“Without the pain that I went through I never would have experienced such a high in my life. I'm sorry that my teammates and fans had to endure the negative results, but for me this experience has been transformative. It has helped change me from a person who was becoming increasingly proud and arrogant and not the person I wanted to be. My bitter experience taught me some much needed humility. Ultimately embracing my vulnerability is what led to my recovery and prepared me for much more down the road.”

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