Sport’s Illustrated did a story on Shawn Bradley this month. Shawn Bradley was a larger than life figure for me growing up. I remember a New Era article showing him with his girlfriend who had to stand on a chair to dance with him. Basketball was a big deal to me and the small town I grew up in. Shawn Bradley seemed to have it all. He was likable, tall, athletic, good looking, and Mormon. He was everything I wanted in a husband and I happened to marry a man who has all of those same qualities. I heard vague stories in the background of my life about Shawn Bradley playing professional basketball, but when this Sport’s Illustrated feature came up on my Twitter feed, I was curious. Surely he was retired by now and coaching or working part-time with speaking engagements or maybe owning car dealerships. Why would Sport’s Illustrated be interested in that?
Imagine my shock when I read the article describing his life now. He and his wife of 25 years divorced. The article said that he is estranged from the six children from his first marriage. Wow. He remarried and rebuilt a life for himself including the hobby of bicycling. Unfortunately, he had a tragic biking accident a year ago that left him paralyzed. Now he is faced with rebuilding his life again as a paraplegic. My mind keeps returning to Shawn Bradley and the shocking turns his life has taken.
It has been a year since I left the church. My life is so different today than it was just a year ago. As I read the article about Shawn Bradley and the state he is in now I see stark parallels between us. When that New Era article came out, we were different people. Who could have looked down the long lens of time and seen who we would become? Who could have anticipated the strange and winding path that would lead us to where we are today in January of 2022?
This January has been different in so many ways. This month I have been thinking about the concept of self-improvement. Usually I am busy drafting New Year’s resolutions, but I have been conflicted this year. My husband is a teacher in the Elder’s Quorum now and he taught a lesson last week based on a talk by Elder Dunn called “One Percent Better.” I haven’t read or listened to the talk, but the title spurred a lot of thoughts about the concept of self-improvement and the moral imperative to improve the self that I have internalized over my lifetime. The church is hardly the only source of pressure to improve the self and be constantly striving toward self-improvement. Schools and workplaces demand it. Corporations market millions of products promised to improve the self. Beauty and hygiene commercials stoke fears and anxieties in their audience which they then promise to alleviate. Self-help books persuade us that the drab life we have can be transformed with a few easy steps. How could I help but internalize the message that the self must be constantly challenged to achievement? The problem with that is that self improvement isn’t always easy or even possible.
What about Shawn Bradley? Is he a better athlete today than he was a year ago? Did he fail to improve because he didn’t read the right self-help book? Did he fail to draft the right New Year’s resolutions? No. He fell victim to a condition that all of us will fall to sooner or later. He fell to mortality. To live in mortality is to be at constant risk of accident, illness, or death. To live in mortality is to walk the slow march to the grave. Rather than a program in self-improvement, mortality is the opposite. It is a story of decay. We don’t improve as we age. Our brains and bodies become less capable as time passes. We can work to delay this, but we can’t stop it.
Rather than become despondent in the face of this grim reality, I choose to meditate on it. What is God trying to teach me? Obviously, he doesn’t care nearly as much about self improvement as I do. If he did, he would have designed a mortal experience in which I could incrementally improve over time. Like a video game, each level I pass I would gain greater skills and freedoms. At ninety, I would be able to fly, have lightning fast reflexes, a flawless complexion, and the ability to do calculus in my head. If self improvement, at least as I have internalized the concept, were His goal, He would have designed this world differently.
Perhaps, I reasoned, the goal is to fight mortality. I will be 43 this year, but what if I could look and feel like I was 30? What if I dedicate my life to this end? I could use plastic surgery, creams, sudoku puzzles, hair dye, and exercise programs in order to cheat mortality and delay the inevitable? But, what is the purpose in fighting an enemy you will never be able to beat? And if I did, I would feel like a rabbit trying to outwit a prowling fox; constantly living in fear. Is that the life God wants for me?
I don’t have any answers right now and I find I’m okay with that. A good question takes time to answer and this one won’t likely be answered any time soon. There is one thing I do know. The way I have internalized moral self-improvement is toxic. It has stolen so much joy from my life. Christ paid the price for me. I don’t have to earn entrance into His kingdom. It is a gift. I wish I could have learned that decades ago. I have lost teeth to anxiety grinding. I have trouble with chronic inflammation and joint pain. My face is etched in worry lines. Why? Because I believed for so long that I had to earn God’s love by being more than who I was and always achieving more. I fear I have set my children’s feet on the same destructive path.
I had a conversation with my teenager as he was planning his school schedule last year. He loaded up on AP and pre-AP classes and I wondered why. Why is he so driven? Why does he surround himself with friends who are smarter and more talented than he is? Why does he push himself so hard? Will he find himself burned out and plagued with numerous health problems in twenty years? I just told him that I would love him no matter what classes he takes and I warned him that driving himself and pushing himself can have health consequences. I don’t think my words carried too much weight since he is a teenager and thinks he is invincible. I am in no rush to convince him otherwise. He has a whole lifetime to learn the sad truth. Maybe someday my words will come back to him and help him learn to love himself better.
Self improvement isn’t always a bad thing, when you know what you’re doing. My exercise program is in full swing. It helps me manage my anxiety and sleep better. It reduces my arthritis and inflammation symptoms. It especially helps my mood. When you don’t know what you’re doing, self improvement quests are a different story. When Ben and I were first married, we lived in a basement apartment underneath a couple from India who were in graduate school. The man’s name was Ravi and he owned a nice looking red Jeep Cherokee. Unfortunately, he kept making “improvements” to it. First, he attached tinted window film that was badly bubbled. Then, he taped up the car and spray painted it with aerosol cans. Each month Ben and I would cringe as our neighbor made new changes to his vehicle. The paint job was especially egregious with patchy coverage and long lines of streaky drips. I think at some point he jacked up the tires. Ravi had started out with a decent car and ended up with an eyesore. Sometimes I think my own projects of self improvement have been as amateurish and ill advised as Ravi’s. Overconfident, I was sure I knew how to improve on God’s creation. Time and experience have proved I would have been better off just letting myself become who God designed me to be. He is my creator and I need to learn first about what exactly he has created before I start trying to make changes.
I pray for Shawn Bradley, his broken family and his broken body. I pray that as we both face the challenges of mortality, that God will take us by the hand and help us rebuild. There is a plan and a purpose to our suffering and we are never alone even though it feels like it. One thing I know, there can be joy during hard times just as there are oases in the desert. Talent and skill don’t produce happiness. Self-improvement is a seductive illusion; the idea that we can craft our own destiny by sheer will is a lie that sells a lot of products but leaves us chasing rainbows and fleeing shadows. This year I want to focus on understanding myself better. Maybe then I can cast the beam out of my eye and see myself clearly before attempting my self improvements.
To all my readers, may you have a blessed new year. May you recover from your illnesses, may friends be near you to bind up your hurts, may blessings rain down on you from unexpected places. Thank you again for walking this path with me.