Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Ronda Rousey, Identity, and Depression

Ronda Rousey, if you have been living in a cave for the past few years, is one of the most successful and famous professional fighters--male or female--in history.

She is the first US woman ever to win an Olympic medal in Judo. She is the youngest woman to ever qualify for the Olympics, qualifying as a judoka at age 14. She was consistently one of the top 3 ranked judo champions in the world before transitioning into mixed martial arts (MMA), where she quickly dominated and became a world champion. Going into November of last year, she was 12-0 as an MMA fighter, and only one fighter had ever even survived the first round...her dominance was unparalleled, with 8 of her 12 challengers being defeated in less than a minute.

And then, in November 2015, she lost. Brutally. Holly Holm defeated her in two rounds so badly that she was hospitalized for some time afterward, and not allowed to fight for six months to allow healing.



"I'm Nothing"


Yesterday on the Ellen Degeneres Show, Rousey talked about this for the first time. She had this to say:


"I was literally sitting there and thinking about killing myself and at that exact second I'm like, 'I'm nothing, what do I do anymore and no one gives a s--t about me anymore without this.' " 

She didn't say this lightly--Rousey's father committed suicide, and for the first time she felt depression lead her there. She said her boyfriend literally saved her life, because it was in speaking with him that she found something to live for...the desire to be with him and have and raise children together.


With a fighter of Rousey's stature, this of course has gotten a lot of play in the sports media world. And as you might imagine, most sports talk show hosts seem to be handling this without a lot of nuance.

The basic discussion points go like this:  she'd never really lost before; part of being an athlete is learning how to lose gracefully; most people learn that young but she didn't; she now will have to learn to push through this.

In other words...work harder. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Rinse, repeat.


But this morning, I heard a fantastic voice of clarity on the subject, who nailed it perfectly. ESPN's Mike Greenberg, a radio show host who himself has experienced depression, had this to say, and everyone should read and think about it:

"I can tell you what I heard when I heard her talking, through my own personal experience [with depression].
It's hard to define what depression is. Picture someone you know, who you don't like very much, but you are forced to spend a lot of time with them. Now imagine that someone is you. That's how you feel about yourself. You go through significant bouts at times where you think about yourself, 'I don't like myself at all.' Think about how you treat people that you don't like, then think about how you treat yourself. Think about the standards you hold yourself to, the things you beat yourself up for, the things that you would support other people through, but you actually end up criticizing yourself in your own mind. That's how I define depression. ...
What I heard her talking about had nothing to do with losing a fight. Nothing--so the fact that had she lost at judo, nothing. This isn't about 'she had a bad show' or anything that we could ever relate to. This is about a person who had found a definition of herself that she liked. 'I like this. I like being the baddest woman on the planet. I like the fact that I'm a superstar. And everyone likes me now for that reason. ...And if I'm not this, people don't like me, and I don't like me." 

Every human has going on inside them an existential crisis--"Who am I?" "How do I fit in this world?" We all know, intuitively, that there is something missing inside us. Our identity is unclear, undecided.

Sometimes we say this optimistically: you can be anything you want to be! (Which of course, is untrue, as is proved by the fact that I'm not in the NBA right now.)

But often we see it pessimistically as well, as a need to find myself.

Listen sometime to the stories of people in the LGBT community, and you will hear this over and over again. Caitlyn Jenner is a great example: what you hear so often is the lack of identity, the desire to find--as Greenberg put it so beautifully--a definition of ourselves that we like. This is what is behind the genderfluid movement as well...that you can change the definition of yourself from one gender to the other when you no longer like the definition that you are seeing of yourself. Pastor Caleb Kaltenbach, who was raised by a lesbian mother, pointed out that his mother continued to identify as a lesbian even after she had stopped having sex for years. Why? Because she said "those are my people, that is my movement." She found a community, an identity.

When you start looking for it, you see everywhere that people are desperate for identity:  I'm LGBT, I'm a feminist, I'm a conservative, I'm an environmentalist, I'm a vegan, I'm a Muslim...

"I'm a _________" is a good description for our society. And for Greenberg at least, depression is what he feels when he fills in the blank and finds that his description of himself, his personal view of his identity, is not something he particularly likes. I have thankfully never battled depression (just a few bouts with anxiety), but my wife has; and this seems like a pretty good descriptor of what she has gone through. My wife is beautiful, talented, thoughtful, kind, and brilliant...but that isn't the identity she sees in herself. And so she is constantly extremely worried about how others will view her--leading to worry about her appearance, quietness during discussions (lest she say something wrong), and the constant feeling that everyone is judging and watching her. As you might imagine, she hates parties!

You see, depression is particularly insidious, because the person battling depression can't "set aside" their identity crisis. We all have this identity crisis at our core, and go through bouts of sadness (or "little-d" depression); but we can set it aside in our minds for a period to get things done, and eventually the sadness passes. The person who is clinically Depressed, however, chemically cannot set it aside and get by. As a result, it is always present. This leads them to want to withdraw from others (so as to avoid having their identity judged and found lacking). But then they are only spending time with the one person who, as Greenberg says, they don't particularly like right now and can't get away from. Thus a spiral continues into self-loathing and--sometimes--suicidal thoughts (as in Rousey's case).



Breaking the cycle

How did Rousey break the cycle?

Well, according to her, she found hope in motherhood and her boyfriend. She decided that she found a cause worth living for. You see, she has changed her self-identity away from "undefeatable fighter" to "future mother."

Caitlyn Jenner and the trans community redefines their identity by changing their gender.

Activists take up a cause to redefine their identity.

Others "fake it till they make it"--using cognitive dissonance, they just pretend they don't have a problem until it goes away. (Note...this doesn't work for the chemically depressed.)

Ultimately the entire self-help industry (and, one might argue, the prosperity gospel) is really all about trying to "reinvent" an identity. Life will be better tomorrow because you've reinvented yourself.

And these "reinventions" may sound hopeful...but they aren't hopeful to me. They are profoundly sad.

Because what has happened is simply an exchanging of burdens. They exchange one flawed identity for another--and eventually, when that one also fails, they will fall again. This is why (IMHO) so many post-op transgenders commit suicide...the depression and identity crisis at their core wasn't solved with the surgery, and eventually they will find their new body just as ill-fitting as the last.

It is the Second Use of the Law, to throw out a theological term:  whatever identity you take on makes demands on you, and eventually you will fail those demands. And so you will find that, again, your identity does not fit you anymore.


So I am sad for Rousey. She is an amazing, accomplished woman with a lot to offer the world. But...she will not find her salvation from depression in motherhood. She will find all of sudden an immense pressure to be something new, the "do it all" mom, and she will find her identity crisis afresh.



My yoke is easy, my burden is light


A yoke is a wooden brace that is used to tie beasts of burden together, and in the ancient world was largely viewed as a symbol of slavery.

The Scriptures tell us that sin is a yoke (Romans 6) and also that legalism is a yoke (Acts 15, Romans 14, Romans 7).

We all have an identity crisis at our core. We all wonder who we are--and, when we look in the mirror, we don't like what we see.

And so we exchange the yoke we have...we change our identity...but if we are only exchanging it for a new yoke of "law", then we will one day be in the same position. Rinse and repeat.


Instead, as the French mathematician Blaise Pascal noted--"inside every person is a God-shaped hole." In other words, this existential crisis, this identity crisis, is exactly what we see in Genesis 3: sin has cut us off from our identity as Image-Bearers of God, and only when He is what fills our identity will we find existential satisfaction.

Only then can we--as Paul says--find contentment no matter our circumstances (Phil 4:12). Only then will our life look like one of peace, joy, love, patience, gentleness, kindness, goodness, faith, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23).

Only when we stop tying ourselves to false yokes will we find the identity we seek.

Jesus said that tying yourself to His yoke--the cross--takes the burden off of you. His yoke is easy; the burden is light (Matt 11:30).

The burden is easy because he did the work for you.

Your identity is that of a co-heir of creation; a lost sheep that has been saved; a servant who has been found acceptable; a bride who has been loved; an orphan who has been adopted.

All your work is meaningless and can be forgotten and left behind, because God didn't forget you or leave you behind.


And all of a sudden...the world is brighter. You may still get depressed, but you can battle through it because it doesn't matter what others think of you...it doesn't even matter what you think of you...the One Who Matters sees you and loves you, just as you are.

As the Jesus Storybook Bible says...we become lovely, because He loves us.




-- Postscript. --

Also might I add: when you understand the identity crisis we all face, and the only Solution to it, you will find yourself much less angry at or prejudicial against people who you see as anti-Christian or anti-Christian values.

When you look down at someone as "feminist" or "atheist" or "gay" or "Muslim" or "trans" what you are doing to them is reducing them to the identity they are holding onto. What is happening is that whatever person you are speaking to--whether Christian or not--has tried to find some identity in their life that they can be okay with. Your job is to be the person who loves them enough to see them as God does: not as an identity, but as a person who bears God's image and simply is missing one piece of the puzzle in their heart.

When this is your view of people, you will find that their sins or their worldviews are less offensive to you, because you will see it for what it really is: an attempt to find some identity that will solve their existential crisis, the crisis of lacking the true Identity that they were made to have, as a child of God. So now you can focus on loving them and helping get to the root of the issue--the lack of Jesus--instead of spending your time with silly attacks against the identity label.


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