Without looking or touching, our right and left hands each knows where the other is. I hadn’t given that magical awareness any thought until I lost it after last month’s surgery to remove a bone spur from my shoulder. All of a sudden, my right hand had no idea where the left was. In order to get the two to meet, I’d lay the right hand on a table surface, put my left hand on that same table and then move it rightwards until it encountered its one-time partner.
The loss lasted only a day or two. I know the explanation for both the sense and its loss resides in the body’s nervous system and brain, but resumption felt something like miraculous.
When I first heard about Simone Biles’ withdrawal from a team event at the Olympics, I was critical. The news came to me in half-heard broadcasts, newspaper headlines, and fragments of conversation. I didn’t dig deep into the controversy because I have little interest in gymnastics or the Olympics.
I originally understood Biles was withdrawing for unspecified reasons of mental health, which sounded like a self-involved star letting down her team for self-indulgent reasons. For me, concepts of mental health are a quandary. I feel we should push ourselves as hard as we can: If I hadn’t plodded through times of self-doubt and sadness when I was younger, I’d never have made it through school and the early years of my career. On the other hand, I recognize that mental states can be as brittle as our immune systems.
There was also media criticism that Biles was letting down her country. Considering that a nation the size of China or the United States dwarfs most others, I’m ambivalent about rankings based on medal numbers. Besides, do we seriously judge a nation based on the performance of a few athletes?
However, I did feel that by withdrawing from competition, Biles let down her team. When I ran a mediation program, I felt pressured when my staff’s already high workload was made harder when one of their colleagues was absent on a family or other emergency. Everyone respected their colleague’s situation, but it was a burden on them. We didn’t have a budget for temporary replacement staff who would, in any event, lack the sustained training that the job required. I had to redistribute the workload and in other ways make each staff member’s tasks more manageable. But it was always stressful. Biles’ mental health excuse seemed to be one with which I wouldn’t have sympathized.
I was also critical of Biles because her participation on that team presumably meant another athlete had been excluded after qualifying rounds. Surely her worries about her mental health had begun long before. She should have withdrawn prior to the Olympics to give the next gymnast in line her opportunity. Or so I thought.
Then I read a convincing explanation of how, at the Olympics, Biles started suffering from what she called the “twisties.” As part of a vault, she has to perform two and a half twists, but suddenly her mind was switching off during the performance. The disconnect was terrifying and could have been dangerous. Thanks to my hands’ post-surgical alienation, I finally got it. Her mind and body were out of synch, which I now knew was very real.
This predicament was new to her, not something she could have anticipated. She wasn’t making some indefinite mental health claim. Nor was she demonstrating disrespect for the team, never mind her country.
Last week, I was on a Zoom call where all the participants agreed that criticism of Simone Biles for letting down country and team was ridiculous. Well, all but one: me. The others were adamant, and I couldn’t think quickly enough to explain my own thoughts.
As I listened to these kind and good friends, I thought about polarization. Throughout the Biles controversy, liberals and conservatives have attacked each other over questions of soft-headedness and patriotism. Even after Biles’ revelation about the twisties, lines remain drawn, knives out, opinions graven in stone.
My hands have forgotten the time when they lost track of each other, but my mind hasn’t. From time to time, marveling at how they instinctively know each other’s location, I recall how loss of that coordination has taken me beyond battle lines to empathy.