Allow me to tell you two true stories that have played out in my life. They link together in a funny sort of way which I’ll explain as I go, and beg the question – why do we need to find acceptance?
The first happened in 2016. This is a period of my life I’ve spoken about extensively. During that period, which was difficult both professionally and personally – I’d badly damaged my mental health and my reputation as a high level athletics coach – by thinking the solution to my problems was to take copious amounts of drugs, I was about to wake up from a night of sleep. Life was brutally tough at the time, so the state of being awake was not one I relished. At the point where my conscious mind sprang back into life – into the place where you can briefly linger and where dreams and reality coalesce to form a world that can feels wonderfully peaceful – I tried to keep myself held back from the painful world of the living. It was in this place where I heard a voice. It was clear and audible, and it was inside my head (not unusual for me at that time. The voice said, “Icarus!”
Not familiar with Greek mythology or what this meant I googled what I’d heard, and learnt of the myth of the boy whose father had crafted him a pair of wings made of wax. He was told by his father not to fly too close to the sun. But Icarus could not resist and flew so high that his wax wings melted from the heat, and he plummeted into the sea, where he drowned.
The second story took place over the last month and ended, tragically, today! At the start of August, we noticed a pigeon, and a very fine pigeon at that, had started to spend time around Well Bath. I quickly noticed he had a ring on his leg and recognising he was a racing pigeon and was owned by someone, I tried to catch him so I could notify the owner. Every time I tried to catch him, he evaded my attempt. In the end, I figured, “Well he has chosen to be here. Maybe we’ll just leave him be.”
Each morning I’d feed him some of the seed or suet balls that we keep for our bird feeders, and he became fatter, and more comfortable with being the new mascot at Well Bath. He was in attendance when I opened the new gym at Well Bath, when I launched my new booking system, and when I brought in my first apprentice trainer. He turned up in a transitional period, and became a symbol of good things happening at White Line Coaching. I started to love having him around. On occasions he came into the gym. I named him Steve (Steve Coo-gan).
As our connection grew, I noticed an amusing similarity between him and me. Just like I had been once, he was retiring from a career in competitive racing; looking to reinvent himself in a more holistic and peaceful world. Maybe he was trying his hand at being a swift by being around White Line Coaching. On one occasion I even found him in our car park, sitting in a deep puddle during a rain-storm, apparently trying out what it’s like to be a duck (I’m not making that up!).
He became tamer, and sat boldly in the centre of the car park. I worried that he’d get taken by a sparrowhawk or that in the end he might get too close to the constantly coming-and-going cars he seemed to have little care for. And then today, tragically our fears became reality, as he ended up under the wheels of a car. I rushed over to see if he could be helped but sadly there was nothing that could be done. I was with him as he took his final breath, and with that our month together ended almost as quickly as it had started.
As I held his warm but lifeless body in my hands, grief rose inside me at the reality that the pigeon wasn’t going to be a permanent fixture in my working life. No longer was I going to be part of one of those rare yet often longed for situations in life – like Gavin Maxwell with his otter, or Konrad Lorenz with his jackdaws – where the usually solid barrier of mistrust between wild and domestic starts to fade.
A symptom of my difficulties in 2016 is that my mind searches for a meaning in everything I experience. A curse at first; it now serves me in most situations and has led me to some amazing insights that have helped me to rebuild my life since then.
Whilst he was alive, he was a faithful companion. Our shared status as former athletes who both became disillusioned with the competitive model of life, and who found meaning, and each other, at a wellness centre on the outskirts of Bath serving as validation that my journey has been worthwhile.
But Steve’s death has rocked that interpretation, and I immediately needed to derive a new meaning from his passing. What was it that lead to Steve being crushed as he found his feet in a peaceful new world away from everything he always knew? And then it came to me. He couldn’t accept the reality of who he was; a racing pigeon. In turning his back on being caged, and the 200 mile drives to be released in the middle of nowhere, he sought comfort. The comfort of being fed suet and sunflower seeds, and of being around people he could trust, and who didn’t ask anything more of him that to grow old and fat in the countryside, eventually led to his demise.
Steve’s story can be imprinted onto that of Icarus, albeit he went up and Steve came down. Icarus had the power to fly towards the comfort and the warmth of the sun, but had been warned about getting too close. He favoured this comfort and in choosing to not keep his feet firmly on the ground where more earthly troubles would have been faced, he dropped to his death.
Now to bring this story back to myself. I’m not saying I’d be better off returning to elite level sport and turning my back on wellness. I am very fulfilled in my current role of building White Line Coaching. But a few interactions I’ve had recently have highlighted the fact that I’m not fully at peace with my athletic and competitive self of the past, and therefore have not fully integrated that part of my personality.
Each summer, there will be a period where people start asking me, knowing I have a history in athletics, “have you been watching the world championships/ commonwealth games/ Olympics etc?“ (Dependant on year of course) And I’ll sneer back at them, “I’m not interested in that crap.” Does that sound like the response of a person who’s at peace with his past, and can therefore fully understand the gifts that it brings to him in the here and now?
Sure, we can choose to end our involvement with a particular thing, as I did with my life in athletics, as Steve did with his racing, as Icarus did with the ground. But we can’t ever really detach ourselves from that part. True integration involves a deep acceptance of who we are and that of course means, who we once were.
Pretending we’re something other than that is a lie to ourselves, and denial will surely lead to us living a less than authentic life and then, eventually, just like Steve, we become crushed, or like Icarus, drown, under the weight of our own illusions.
True acceptance can only take place when we accept that pain and suffering is an essential and unavoidable facet of existence. Avoidance of it denies us the richest aspects of the reality we live within. We can try to avoid the suffering of exercise and as a result never get fit. We can try to avoid the suffering of letting a harmful addiction go and as a result never claim full sovereignty over our life. We can try to avoid the suffering of our shameful past by reinventing ourselves over and over, and as a result never really know ourselves. When we find this place of acceptance in the suffering of life, are we not reborn as someone who can stay still and reap the benefits and lessons that are available to us in those places?
So, Steve, thank you for our month together and thank you for the lesson. RIP.
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