Not all of us can 'live strong'

REV. RAYMOND DE SOUZA

Even the name is perfect. Lance Armstrong.

The surname is that of a stepfather who passed through his mother's life when Lance was a boy — a man the young Lance so thoroughly despised that he would later write to him to say that "if I could, I would change my name."

But like so much in Armstrong's life, adversity brought opportunity along with it. That's now the philosophy he promotes with his Lance Armstrong Foundation.

Mooneyham is his mother's maiden name, and Gunderson the surname of his biological father, or as Armstrong derisively puts it, "the DNA donor." But Lance Mooneyham or Lance Gunderson wouldn't quite fit the winner of seven consecutive Tour de France victories, earning him the early lead for greatest athlete of the 21st century.

Lance Armstrong nicely abbreviates itself into LiveStrong, the motto of his cancer foundation.

It was the inspiring story of Lance Armstrong, who roared back from testicular cancer to become the great cycling champion, which drew millions to a sport that is rather too complicated and too prolonged to follow easily on television. But as much as fans cheered for Armstrong to win the Tour, they were cheering too for the LiveStrong philosophy that has arisen from his unique accomplishments.

Armstrong's utter singularity makes him a great inspiration, even if he would be hard to follow as a model. Here is an athlete who — even to his own surprise — became better after, and in some important respects because of, his cancer. The powerful sprinter who was comparatively weak in the mountains returned after the cancer to dominate the steep climbs that separate the winners from the losers in the Tour de France. As a young cyclist, Armstrong had been told by five-time Tour winner Eddie Merckx that he needed to lose weight — the pre-cancer Armstrong was built like a muscular linebacker — in order to win the climbs.

The cancer spared Armstrong's preternatural lung capacity and his piston-like thighs, but took 15 pounds of muscle off his upper body — a combination which made him unbeatable in the mountains.

There is much to recommend in the LiveStrong approach — which emphasizes the patient as an active agent in controlling the cancer, not a passive recipient of advice and treatment. "It's your life," states the Manifesto of the Lance Armstrong Foundation. "You will have it your way."

And Lance did have it his way. When told by doctors in Texas that the cancer treatment would kill his cycling career, he was on a plane within days to the leading specialists in Indiana, who devised a treatment protocol that would spare his lungs from permanent damage. When it turned out that he was without health insurance at the time of his diagnosis, and therefore facing astronomical medical bills, one of his corporate sponsors took him onto their health plan and ordered the insurance company to pay when it balked at Armstrong's pre-existing condition.


"Pain is my chosen way of exploring the human heart," he writes. "We have unrealized capacities that sometimes emerge in a crisis. So if there is a purpose to the suffering that is cancer, I think it must be this: it's meant to improve us."


But it wasn't Armstrong's wealth and connections that truly set him apart. It was his drive and his determination. Indeed, it is remarked that Armstrong doesn't win the Tour de France in July, but rather the previous winter, when he is training harder than any others, spending seven cold hours a day on his bike and weighing his pasta to ensure the right nutritional balance. He applied that super-competitive attitude to his cancer. And with the help of the best medicine available, he beat it.

He has said that if he had to choose between winning the Tour and having had cancer, he would choose the cancer. He believes the experience of suffering taught him how to fight and how to persevere, lessons for life that also served him well in the grueling Tour.

"Nobody in the world is better at suffering," he wrote about his endurance. Cancer brought Armstrong face to face with intense suffering, and he believes that it purifies the soul. Indeed, Armstrong thinks suffering can elevate the personality, revealing hidden sources of strength.

"Pain is my chosen way of exploring the human heart," he writes. "We have unrealized capacities that sometimes emerge in a crisis. So if there is a purpose to the suffering that is cancer, I think it must be this: it's meant to improve us."

Armstrong finds himself in a long tradition of meditation upon the purposes of suffering. Suffering can, indeed, clarify priorities, purify intentions and solidify resolve. But suffering is also destructive, and for most it destroys more than it builds up.

Many who work with cancer patients are ambivalent about the LiveStrong approach. While resolve and determination in the face of disease are to be encouraged, for many patients, in agony with no hope of recovery, encouraging them to LiveStrong borders on mockery. Cancer wins more often than it loses, and living strong for many is simply beyond their capacity.

Religious traditions understand the mystery of human suffering against the horizon of eternity, where suffering does not have the final word and where every tear will be wiped away. Armstrong, who is agnostic, doesn't have that supernatural horizon against which to measure suffering, and so the alternative is to LiveStrong. Yet there is another type of strength too, the strength of the one is wholly weak, crucified by pain and waiting simply for death. To hold fast to faith and hope is another way of living strong, but one that does not seek control over life, but rather surrenders it to a merciful Providence. For a gifted few, living strong is an option; for many others, dying strong is the best witness that they can give.

Armstrong speaks, as many cancer survivors do, about the "obligation of the cured" — to help others stricken with cancer. His foundation is an admirable way of doing just that. And his own encounter with suffering has led him to think about life and death more deeply. What he will do with his retirement is yet to be seen, but using his unique position to explore further the deeper questions posed by suffering would be a worthy service.

Armstrong entitled his first book, It's Not About the Bike, writing that the Tour de France was not a bike race, but rather a metaphor for life; a metaphor for finding opportunity in adversity, for overcoming weakness and suffering and pain.

There are very few Lance Armstrongs. There are more Mooneyhams and Gundersons and Smiths and Jones who, if they were to suit up in the Tour de France, would not ride into Paris wearing the yellow jersey, but be taken to hospital in an ambulance. But for them, even though he is an impossible model, Lance Armstrong remains an inspiration. That is a greater achievement than his seven Tours de France.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Not all of us can 'live strong'." National Post, (Canada) July 28, 2005.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

THE AUTHOR

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2005 National Post


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