A Runner-Up to True Greatness
I love Wimbledon. I used to stay up late and watch it as a kid, and my favourite ever Wimbledon final was when Goran Ivanišević beat Pat Rafter in straight sets. It was dramatic, it was intense, and it was historical: Ivanišević became the first wildcard and the first Croatian to win Wimbledon.
Last Sunday, Marin Cilic set out to become the second Croatian to win Wimbledon. To do it, he would have to stop Roger Federer from making history by winning an eight Wimbledon title. He would have to overcome blisters he picked up during the semi-final, and the knowledge that he couldn't move and play at his best.
I don't know if spoilers should apply to past events, but if you don't want to know the result, you picked a poor Internet to visit today. Federer won in straight sets, and he was amazing. His highlight reel for the tournament is fantastic.
But apparently, the real story is that, due to the blisters, the pressure, and the knowledge that he could not play at his best, Cilic was crying during the second set.
And the debate raged on as to whether or not Cilic was brave or weak, childlike or heroic, many of the commentators choosing to be deliberately provocative:
This shouldn't be a big deal to anybody except for Marin Cilic, and ultimately, his role in Wimbledon 2017 was to be forgotten, a runner-up to true greatness. But since his tears are a big deal at the moment, let's recognise the truth of the situation.
Marin Cilic did something that few people do: he chose his suffering.
Suffering is Inevitable, Suffering is a Choice
Professional athletes know how to suffer. They train incredibly hard, they sacrifice much of their personal privacy and the social life of a normal person in pursuit of greatness on the sporting field.
Now, the idea that life involves pain is not new. It's pretty much the one thing that everybody can agree on, from Buddha, to Marcus Aurelius, to Hollywood.
But there are a lot of situations where you have to choose your suffering. These are dilemmas, and they're more common than you think...
The alarm rings. You're warm, and at peace, and the floor is cold. You stare at the time with a mixture of familiarity and disbelief. You won't like getting out of bed, but you know that if you don't go to work, you won't get paid...
You're in the middle of a workout, an intense combination of power cleans, pullups and burpees. It's horrible. Your lungs burn. You feel like you're going to vomit. You don't want to keep going, but if you quit, you'll lose the intended stimulus of the workout and feel the shame of quitting...
You get a phone call. It's your sister. She never calls. She tells you that your mother has died overnight. You want to curl up and cry for days, but you also know that your mother's last rites need to be arranged...
You're sitting on your couch. Your favourite TV show is on, and you're eating your favourite dish from your favourite Thai take-away restaurant, chasing it with your favourite ice-cream. In the midst of your comfort, you wonder what meaning your life truly has...
A dilemma is typically viewed as a situation where there are no good outcomes for you; in any direction you turn, there will be suffering. It was said that in times of victory, Roman generals were customarily reminded of their mortal status, that even the most powerful among them would eventually die. Taken with this view, life is the ultimate dilemma.
So, if you viewed your life as a dilemma, as an experience that contains moments of pleasure but where suffering was inevitable, what type of suffering would you choose?
Would you choose to go to bed early, work out at the gym, push yourself hard, eat healthy and miss out on tasty junkfood?
Would you choose to focus your energy on your kids, constantly consider their development and growth, and prioritise their happiness and wellbeing over your own?
Would you choose to play through physical pain and mental anguish, being humiliated by the world's greatest tennis player on the sport's biggest stage, come so close to glory, and seeing it slip out of your grasp with every agonising point?
And more importantly, why would you choose your suffering at all?
What Is Within Your Control
In his Discourses, Roman slave-turned-educator Epictetus said, "Where do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself, to the choices that are my own."
In the examples above, what awaits those who choose their suffering is not the absence of pain, but rather the trading of one pain for another.
Rather than suffering from heart disease later in life, or the appalling behaviour of poorly raised kids, or the nagging doubt that comes from bailing in a Wimbledon final, these people choose upfront pain that hurts now, but helps later.
But none of that is guaranteed. The rewards may never come. You may stack the odds in your favour, but external forces will always play a role in the outcome. The world may never know your name. You are not entitled to anything.
Marin Cilic had nothing material to gain by playing on. He's already won a Grand Slam title, so that part of his legacy is secure. He would still get his prize money and runner-up trophy if he retired from the match. The effect on his reputation may not have changed: some people would have admired him, others would have called him a baby, and ultimately, runners-up are largely forgotten in tennis history.
The only thing that Cilic had complete control over was his own self-respect. Your self-respect is the only domain in which you have complete power. And only you know the suffering it takes to obtain it, and the suffering you feel when you lose it.
Which will you choose?
This is all easier said than done. If you're interested in learning ways to make the most of stress, setbacks and suffering, then our workshop, Resilience: Taking Advantage of Adversity may be helpful to you, your gym or your workplace. Click the link below to learn more about any of our workshops.
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