I’ve enjoyed watching the Olympics since I was a kid. I remember rooting for Mary Lou Retton and Scott Hamilton in 1984 and Greg Louganis in 1988, being mesmerized by tours of Barcelona in 1992, and cheering on the U.S. team in Atlanta in the summer of 1996. Like many Americans, I delighted in watching Michael Phelps become the most decorated Olympian in history with his seemingly superhuman abilities.
While I tend to prefer the summer games over the winter, I have nevertheless looked forward to the spectacle of it all, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, as the saying goes, each year the Olympic games roll around. Some of my favorite moments are the ones when things don’t go according to plan, when the favorite doesn’t win gold or when an athlete has the surprise performance of a lifetime or when athletes model sportsmanship, courage and humanity for all the rest of us. I’ve always loved moments when those who are blessed with gifts most of us can’t imagine choose to share them with the world, help us to transcend our day-to-day routines and feel as if we’re sharing in their greatness — the shared potential each of us has to do something extraordinary.
Earlier this summer we got a taste of that extraordinary humanity when gymnast Simone Biles, known as the greatest of all time in her sport, pulled herself from competition due to what was initially described as a mental health issue. As much as I applaud and support her decision to prioritize mental health and to force a long overdue discussion about the mental and emotional demands placed on athletes, anyone else with any kind of celebrity status, and, really, all of us at different points in our lives, I have to admit something:
My first internal very competitive American reaction was to think, “What? If she’s not physically hurt, she needs to pull herself together and compete for her team and for her country.”
It took a minute or two for me to process the thoughts that were running through my head and to check my own thinking and impulses. Of course, competing when not mentally able to do so is dangerous and foolish. Of course I didn’t want her injured. Of course I realize she doesn’t owe me, or anyone else, anything. Of course I want people talking about mental health. I think it’s especially important for those whose gifts have provided a platform to do so to call attention to issues that have, for far too long, been kept in the shadows.
In short, I stopped, questioned my own thinking, recognized that my initial thoughts were the product of a very American tendency to believe that strength is only demonstrated by pushing through pain, and say three little words.
I was wrong.
I was wrong. We as Americans really have a hard time saying those words. We come up with all sorts of excuses to avoid saying them. Sometimes we keep doubling, or even tripling down on a mistake, in spite of all evidence, rather than just admit we were wrong.
Here’s a little story about another time I was wrong.
Many years ago, I was pregnant when I came across some reading about vaccines and potential side effects. The material I read was pretty alarming, dealing with preservatives and thimerosal and mercury levels and mistakes made by healthcare workers. Honestly, it freaked me out, and, for a while, I became an anti-vaxxer.
Those who know me and know how forcefully I’ve been encouraging people to be vaccinated against COVID-19 may be surprised by that piece of information, but it’s the truth.
I took some information I came across and let it influence my thinking. Some of the questions I asked myself were the same questions I hear people asking now. “If your vaccine is so effective at protecting you, why do you care if I have one?” I have never been one to visit doctors frequently or take lots of medications, so the notion that natural immunity was preferable seemed to make sense. After all, humankind had survived for millennia without vaccines, right?
I’ll say that again, unequivocally.
I. Sheila McGuire. Was. Wrong.
Believe me, I hate admitting that as much as the next person.
But it is also the truth.
Sure, humanity survived for millennia without vaccines and modern medicine. They also had much shorter life spans and died horrible deaths or suffered long-term consequences from illnesses like smallpox and polio — illnesses that none of us worry about anymore, thanks to vaccines.
My intentions were good. But I genuinely didn’t understand the science behind transmission and concepts like “herd immunity.” In short, I’m not an epidemiologist or a medical doctor or a scientist and my little bit of research did not make me one.
I guess what I’m getting at is that I understand how easy it can be to come across some reading or an online video making a bunch of fantastical claims and for that messaging to change your thinking. I also understand how hard it is to veer from that path once you’re set on it. I certainly didn’t like being told that the information I’d read about vaccines had been debunked and was inaccurate.
Believe me, I didn’t enjoy that one bit, and if you think I enjoy writing this and publicly admitting my mistakes, well, then you’ve just made a mistake yourself.
But, it’s okay, we’re all human and we all make mistakes. We all make hasty judgments sometimes. We all have a tendency to get swept up in juicy conspiracy theories. Why else would there be so many movies and tales about the Masons or the Illuminati or UFOs or Bigfoot or the JFK assassination or any number of other things? The truth is that we, as humans, enjoy those juicy tales. Feeling as if you’ve unraveled a conspiracy and seen behind the veil is fun. It just is.
But something being fun and enticing doesn’t mean it’s the truth.
The truth is that vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccines, are some of the most rigorously tested and most successful medical advancements in human history. I was wrong to believe otherwise.
Our country, and much of the world, is in a very precarious place right now. We’re polarized, we argue constantly, we tend to view people who disagree with us as the enemy, and we label people who change their minds as weak flip-floppers.
However, I’m here to say that changing one’s mind, when confronted with new evidence, is actually a good thing. Admitting you screwed up and taking accountability and responsibility for yourself is actually a good thing.
And it would be a very good thing, especially at our present precarious place, for a whole lot of us to at least consider the possibility that watching some videos or doing some online reading doesn’t make us all scientists or experts in any other subject. Perhaps, just as we are in awe of world-class athletes, we should also be in awe of people who have dedicated their lives to making ours better.
I enjoy watching the Olympics, even though I myself possess very little athletic ability and have more than once tripped over my own feet, because the games exemplify some of the most amazing things about humanity that we want to feel are present in all of us, in some way. Perhaps we also need to see and embrace the other parts of our shared humanity and admit that we’ve all been wrong, at least once or twice.