When Lance Armstrong sat down with Oprah Winfrey last month to confess his sins he gave us all a gift. It was a portrait held fast by yellow Live Strong wrist bands and wrapped in the tattered flags of fame – a portrait of what avarice, greed, and self-obsession can do to a magnificent life. A powerful cautionary tale, Armstrong’s precipitous fall from grace holds a mirror to our own lives. We may not like what we see.
2012 was a bad year for Lance Armstrong. Stripped of all his hard won cycling victories, including his unprecedented seven Tour de France titles and banned from professional cycling for life, Armstrong seemed to have come to the end of his road as the sport’s most prolific master. In the face of all evidence and testimony Armstrong fought tenaciously for his innocence. But the old fighter finally ran out of fight.
Over two nights in January Armstrong admitted to Oprah on worldwide television that he had indeed used a wide variety of performance enhancing drugs during his entire career as a professional cyclist. Every one of his Tour de France victories was earned under the influence.
If he were just a substance abuser, or a cheater, that would be one thing. But the worst part is the way he went after everyone who crossed him. In his maniacal campaign to hide the truth he sued and bullied anyone who even remotely threatened his clapboard empire – former coaches, trainers, team members, and friends. Careers were destroyed, relationships severed, families bankrupted, and reputations ruined – all to keep the lie intact.
Armstrong has his fans. His accomplishments are truly impressive in spite of his flaws. Considering the high probability that nearly all of his competitors were also doping, Armstrong’s dominance of the sport is truly historic – one for the ages were it not for the fact that his name has been expunged from all cycling records as if he had never existed. But he is real and won’t easily be forgotten, especially when you consider his philanthropic work.
In 1996 Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It spread to his lungs and brain. After a vigorous round of chemotherapy and testicular surgery he was declared cancer free in 1997, becoming a powerful role model for cancer survivors everywhere. The Lance Armstrong Foundation, later known as Live Strong, attracted millions of dollars in charitable donations and served the needs of cancer survivors and their families around the world. It’s hard not to cheer for people who overcome great obstacles, fight their way to victory, and use their platform to promote the good of others.
That’s what makes Armstrong’s fall from grace so painful.
When public meltdowns like this come along – this isn’t the first and it won’t be the last – we’re offered an important opportunity for self-examination where the most vexing paradoxes of the human psyche are laid bare. How can someone so powerful be so weak? How can someone so disciplined be so impulsive? How can someone so calculating be so capricious? And most important, what can we learn from Armstrong’s mistakes?
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be more. There is nothing wrong with going big, playing hard, and wanting to win. Ambition, in and of itself, is not evil. But without careful introspection into one’s motives, the path to mastery is fraught with danger.
The urge to grow and expand is built into the very fabric of life itself. To be alive is to continually emerge. It is in our nature to swim through the circumstances and challenges of our lives seeking something better and becoming stronger in the process.
Sports make a game out of this primal impulse. It is deeply satisfying to test one’s mettle against others in seemingly arbitrary contests of wit and strength. Put a ball through a hoop. Run around a lawn touching all four bases. Race bicycles through the hills of France. It isn’t the particulars that matter, it’s the universals. We live vicariously through our athlete-heroes because they play out for us in grand fashion this deep and defining primal drama.
We bring this same set of impulses to any human endeavor – the arts, music, business, even love. The hunger for more drives us like a lash. The hunger itself is neither good nor bad. It’s the consciousness we bring to the game that determines its morality.
In a revealing moment of honesty, Armstrong told Oprah that he “needed to control every outcome.” It wasn’t enough to compete and test his skill against other cycling masters. He only wanted to play if winning was guaranteed. And he was willing to do anything to win, even sacrifice his own joy.
At one point Oprah asked him, “Did you enjoy winning?”
He didn’t answer. Instead he said, “I enjoyed the process.” Learning to discern the difference between the joys of the process and the pathology of outcome-obsession is a journey Armstrong is only now beginning to take.
No matter how far you make it in any field, there is always someone farther along, deeper inside, or higher up. The restlessness and dissatisfaction that fueled you as a starving actor still haunts you as you accept your first Oscar because so and so has two, or three, or a lifetime achievement award. A San Diego Music Award is not a Grammy, and a Grammy is not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It never ends. For Armstrong, winning an unprecedented seven Tour de France titles was a hollow experience. A million wouldn’t be enough.
Like Darth Vader, Gollum, and Midas, Armstrong was eaten from the inside by his own malice. He became a monster. His hubris eclipsed his humanity. Yet when the moon is eclipsed by the earth’s shadow it doesn’t stop being the moon. Shadows move. There is always hope for redemption.
In the race for Armstrong’s soul, his steepest climbs lay ahead of him.
In our own lives, do we want to be the best to fill some perceived deficiency? Or do we simply want to honor what is growing and emerging through us, and experience our gift as an opportunity to serve in a joyful spirit of generosity and celebration? Is it more fun to win at all costs or playfully compete with integrity, honor, and mutual respect?
Lance Armstrong tried to run the entire universe. His fear and craving told him that the only way to survive this wild and wonderful life was by turning everything into a battle, everyone into an enemy and every joy into a conflict. His discipline, power, and mastery, even his compassion and willingness to serve, were all subverted by self-obsession and pathological craving.
In our own lives, we have to find a way to balance ambition with service, ego with selflessness, excellence with humility, and effort with effortlessness. It is not wrong to want to be more. Honor that which is emerging through you by cultivating the courage to express your own greatness in a way that honors your authentic nature without diminishing the greatness of others. Know that the light within you does not belong to you – it belongs to all of us. It is a sacred treasure, not private property. It is a gift that only shines in the giving. Although a gifted athlete and generous philanthropist, the lessons of this tragedy are perhaps Lance Armstrong’s greatest gift.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and professor at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics, and world mythology. You can find him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/peter.bolland.page), follow him on Twitter (www.twitter.com/peterhbolland), or write to him at email@example.com