How is it that the Paralympics were so moving? Nearly two months later I still ask myself the question. The memories have stayed with me – of the tears I felt at the sensational courage, fitness and desire in the wheelchair 400 metres of David Weir and his fellow competitors as they hammered their way, backs horizontal, necks forward and raised, arms pumping; like swans in flight above a river. Or the guided blind runners, young women hand in hand with male runners in the 200m sprint, freed into lightness from all inhibition. Or the women from Saudi Arabia and Jamaica trying to warm themselves in the chilly evening breeze before putting the shot or throwing the javelin from sitting positions.
What lay behind my tears? Was it pity, a patronising attitude? Or was it partly denial of a real, though embarrassing, discomfort in relation todisability, an unease combined with triumph that we may all feel at some level?
Or, more simply, was it a matter of being moved by the courage of these sportsmen and women in overcoming disadvantages? Though most of us have not had legs blown off, or suffered from meningitis as children, we all have nevertheless some inner knowledge of how hard it is to be unable to do things that others can do, to feel vulnerable or ashamed or humiliated.
One palpable feeling that stayed with me afterwards was the sense that I, too, could now tolerate more, and face more, of the little and big obstacles of living; that I could live with these difficulties, and go through the process of struggling to learn new skills, new competences. I (and you) can learn from these athletes; the experience of watching them can result in a calmer, less anxious, frame of mind. I think all present also recognised a shared sense of generosity in the crowd; the powerful insular passion and patriotism did not push out respect and admiration for all the athletes.
As I think back to the extraordinary events of early September I also reflect on how we reacted differently to different classifications of event – from athletes with magnificent physiques (the blade runners had an air of mythical beings, larger than life) to others with more pervasive and severe disabilities.
Some of the athletes had inborn limitations, other acquired. Those in the former category will feel that their limitation is their norm, and may therefore feel uncomfortable when people like me go on about their bravery. “They can’t see what all the fuss is about,” says Ian Martin, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s head of disability cricket. But I suspect these people have nevertheless had to face down the ridicule, embarrassment or mockery of others, on top of requiring the same sort of courage as that of their Olympic colleagues.
As a psychoanalyst I am fortunate to be privy to similar strengths and courage, mainly in relation to psychological limitations. I can be upset or troubled by others’ problems and difficulties, but I can also admire and be touched by people’s efforts to make the best of a bad job without manic attempts to deny the pain, without shifts to superiority or to callous indifference as means of dealing with envy or a sense of inadequacy. Some patients are remarkably free from grievance – or they struggle pluckily with this familiar tendency.
There are two main sources of error that we as analysts or therapists may fall into in relation to psychopathology or psychological disability. One is to lack empathy, to fail to comprehend and take on something of the burden of suffering, both that which is directly expressed and that which is projected and given to us to experience. The opposite error is that we allow ourselves to be moved in the wrong way, with too much pity; we may go along with exaggeration of suffering, with a victim mentality in which resentment at the cards dealt one, resentment that may even amount to sabotaging oneself in order to keep up an image of being badly done by and deserving of special treatment, becomes more powerful than getting on with life. As analysts or therapists, we need to confront such grievance and envy to enable patients who are in their grip to become more responsible for their actions and attitudes.
Oscar Pistorius, the Blade Runner, told a story of his mother’s matter-of-factness when trying to get him and his siblings to school on time: to his brother she said, in effect: “Put on your shoes, it’s time for school”; and to Oscar: “And you, Oscar, put on your legs. And hurry up.”
There are similarly two broad trends in political affiliation: those on the left tend to feel for the disadvantaged, an attitude that may risk being soft on benefit fraud, being collusive with passivity and irresponsibility. As Salman Rushdie, commenting on his experience of the fatwa, said recently: “I think this is a historical mistake of the progressive left. The sense that people who say they’re offended have a right to have their offendedness assuaged.” By contrast, those on the right may tell people to get on their bikes, advice that readily veers into unkindness, suspiciousness and indifference towards the disadvantaged, as well as (possibly) colluding with or encouraging the tendency to mock and stigmatise the less fortunate for disabilities or even differences of various kinds.
Talking to the former England cricket captain Andrew Strauss, and coach Andy Flower recently, I discovered that their highly successful working partnership in leading the team was based not only on a similarity of attitude to the team (which was obviously there). They also balanced each other; Strauss (in Flower’s words) had remarkable empathy and support for his team, and earned their love. Flower, according to Strauss, was willing to ruffle feathers (in the least disturbing way possible) when players needed to be confronted. Empathy and confrontation – both are qualities needed by leaders, parents, teachers, coaches and, in fact, everyone.
Paralympic athletics has perhaps come of age when ambition can be robustly or even crudely owned, as in the men’s sprints, with accusations from one athlete (Pistorius) about the length of another’s (Alan Oliveira’s) blades, while in the ensuing 100m there were two tense and touchy false starts, even possible gamesmanship in keeping other runners waiting. Disabled athletes are not exempt from the tensions and temptations of a fierce desire to win.
It was interesting that one play included (at The Globe) in the Cultural Olympiad was Richard III. Richard is a character who deals with being born “deformed, half-finished, sent before my time into this breathing world scarce half made up” by vengefully imposing suffering on others. In him, grievance functions at the utmost limit of cynicism. All of us have our limitations, our misfortunes, our disabilities and our disadvantages. We all have the choice between underplaying our vulnerabilities (and then being prone to manic flight, addictions, escapes and retreats of all kinds) and overplaying them by becoming victims, whether self-annihilatingly or aggressively.
We can, in short, learn a lot from the Paralympic athletes. Their predicament is ours, writ large. And something of their achievement, made possible by lottery funding and the state’s commitment, could be ours. A touch of nature makes us all akin.
The experiences of all of us watching the Paralympics may result in such outcomes; I hope they will persist, that the small fires lit at the end of the closing ceremony create a growing heat, at both individual and public levels, in sport and beyond it.