The Dissatisfaction of Reaching The Mountaintop
“I’ve been to the mountaintop…And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land.” — Martin Luther King in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”,
What’s something you want most in life? Making money? Success? A good relationship? Academic achievement? Career success? Good health? A family?
Most people would answer somewhere in those categories, but what then? What happens after you get to the mountaintop? Olympic athletes, no matter their success, suffer an emotional drop that’s called by sports psychologist, Scott Goldman, “post-Olympic Depression”. Their lives go from extraordinary to ordinary very quickly.
Goldman goes on to say that the emotional drop athletes experience after going to the Olympics isn’t that different from the drops we feel after major milestones, like getting married, having kids, the honeymoon phase of relationships, or graduating from high school or college.
He cites Olympic gold medalist swimmer, Allison Schmitt, who sunk into a deep depression after she won three gold medals in the 2012 London Olympic Games. Michael Phelps similarly experienced a dark depression after winning eight world records in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, would say right before the 2016 Rio Olympics that:
“I took some wrong turns and found myself in the darkest place you could ever imagine.”
At the heart of it, according to Caroline Silby, sports psychologist, is that many Olympic athletes put their whole identities into their sports. They idolize their achievements and then once they go back to ordinary life where they’re not in the process of being an Olympic athlete, they struggle with their identities outside being athletes.
Another sports psychologist, Kristin Keim, tells The Atlantic that having long-range plans outside their sport can prevent an athlete from slipping into clinical depression.
What Olympic athletes go through after reaching the mountaintop reminds me of a famous myth in Greek mythology: King Midas and the golden touch.
Midas, the King of Phrygia in Asia Minor, had everything he could possibly want as a king. He lived in luxury, had a great castle, and shared his life with his daughter. But Midas thought the greatest gratification in life was provided by gold and became obsessed with it.
One day, one of Dionysus’s satyrs, Silenus, got tired and took a nap in Midas’s rose garden. Midas found Silenus and then invited him to spend a couple of days at his palace. Dionysus decided to give Midas any wish he wanted, and Midas said the following:
“I hope that everything I touch becomes gold.”
Of course, many of us know the rest of the story. The gift of having everything he touched turn to gold ended up being a curse. He couldn’t eat because the food he touched turned to gold. When he hugged his daughter in his anguish, she turned into a golden statue, and Midas asked Dionysus for forgiveness.
Dionysus felt bad for him and Midas cured himself of his curse by washing his hands in the river Pactolus. Gold started flowing in the river and then everything he touched was normal again.
The golden touch was King Midas’s mountaintop. Once he got it, he realized that it was more of a curse than a gift, something that made his life miserable rather than happy. Olympic athletes’ version of the golden touch is, ironically, the pinnacle of their success as athletes.
Money is not bad in itself. Success is not bad.
But if money and success are everything, then it’s a problem. Work is a similar kind of phenomenon — if our achievement at work defines us, there inevitably will be times when work does not go well. We need something else out there to look forward to as constants, and for me, that’s my faith, but everyone needs a certain constant in their lives that will not make them beholden to any one idol.
Look, it’s easy to preach, but it’s a lesson I had to learn from experience. I used to think my self-worth was completely based on my academic success or my accomplishments as a runner. It was only when those things didn’t go well that I realized that placing my value completely in my accomplishments and performance would lead to endless misery.
Even when I reached the mountaintop and had a semester with close to a 4.0 GPA, it made me realize that it wasn’t all that. It wasn’t that it wasn’t a great accomplishment, because it was. The point was that the accomplishment wasn’t everything.
I realized, then, like life is about the people and the relationships much more than it was the accolades. So the mountaintop is not the end of your journey or my journey — we need to look to the promised land.
My promised land is my faith. What is yours?