"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
In life we make quite a few mistakes which most people give you grace for but eventually there gets to a point where people just tire of being kind. The quote (possibly by Plato), however, is so perfectly illustrated in league legend Andrew Johns' book The Two of Me that after reading the first two pages I closed the book feeling like I knew exactly what drove this amazing footballer and his antics. It probably is the battle that we see in many young males outworking in some form of anti-social behaviour. It was a reflection that revealed he had undergone at least some form of self-awareness process that many people never reach. It’s pertinent that Mitchell Pearce not only hears the words of Johns and goes through this process but is shown how to make peace with his own battle. We’ll get back to that shortly.
In 1996 ACT Brumbies rugby union coach Rod Macqueen asked me to join the squad for the up-coming season but warned that I had a reputation as a drinker and needed to take a break. Not long after, I wandered home early one morning only to be greeted by Rod in the stairwell as he was walking out the door for a run. I’m sure it was no coincidence that he was positioned to live directly below my room in what came to be called the Melrose Place apartments. Interestingly, I didn’t get picked for the early games of that season. A year later when the Wallabies were touring Argentina, Rod pulled me aside to suggest that it was in my best interests that I had an early night but after a heady trip to a flooded Iguazu Falls, I thought it would be an idea to have a few drinks to celebrate. These ideas of mine never seemed to be good ideas, just ideas! On the bus the next day Rod sought me out to ask why I was seen coming home in the early hours of the morning after he had specifically asked me not to. I ended up being sent home with a few other players not needed in Europe, although it was for a combination of form & ill-discipline.
Years after retiring I found myself having one of many shockers where not just my job was compromised but friendships. Apparently my drinks had been spiked by some ‘ friends’ who thought they’d help me ‘body-bag’ myself and at some stage I had cut both hands, with an artery in my finger getting sliced. My flat-mate had just cleaned the bathroom the night before and now I had just sprayed it with spurting blood. A mutual friend then said something that confronted me into realising that I had no idea of who I was. His words were... “I think you need to see someone about your drinking.” And then … “You are like a dancing monkey. People fill you up with alcohol and watch you dance till you fall over and then they laugh at you”. Ouch! It was true! I would just do anything to shock, make people laugh, demonstrate my drinking ability, show I was loose, forget my life, drown the pain, escape from who I was…
I really believe that many of these sporting guys we see in the papers are dancing to the beat of someone else’s drum as part of trying to appease what Andrew Johns describes below. When researching my psychology honours thesis on the beliefs that justify rape and associations with a sense of entitlement, I came across a term that helped me realise where that music might be coming from. The article written by Candace West and Don Zimmerman for Gender & Society magazine (1987) spoke of 'doing gender’. This term is used to describe a performative dance in each interaction whereby males for instance have to prove that they are man enough. Think about some males you meet who are forever trying to out-man other men or belittle any behaviour that does not represent hyper-masculinity...like showing any emotional vulnerability for caring for a woman. It’s really often seen as just playing around but it’s not without effect. Some guys take it to the extent of trying to humiliate other men and women as part of a play for power or to calm their insecurities, some of this driven by those with personality disorders.
This made sense from my perspective in that I had realised I had no real sense of who I was and as a result I was playing the part of how I wanted to be seen by others. In the work of psychologist David Schnarch, people without a strong but flexible sense of self will attempt to reflect their self-worth & identity through the eyes of others. A reflective sense of self. They will do what they need to do to be seen favourably in the eyes of others. But didn’t Pearce do almost the opposite. Having no interest in what these people thought? It isn’t necessarily that they want the person to see them and think they are acting favourably but the intent is to play the part so that people see you as favourable according to actions that define the type of masculinity to which one prescribes. This socialised masculinity may depend on whether you work as a computer programmer or as a professional MMA fighter but for people without an established sense of who they are, they may well try to have a man-off against other men in order to prove themselves. A new scenario and away we go again. Each interaction is another role-play & challenge in being man enough. It becomes exhausting! I believe in a team it starts as playing out the character that the other players may want you to be or which positions you favourably within the team according to the espoused behaviours.
One of the other attributes of survival in a professional sport with such a big profile as rugby league is that you have to have a thick skin. The attitude of I don’t care what anyone thinks has to be a mantra of anyone whose performance and character is analysed every week by critics paid to see weaknesses. It’s hard to imagine what pressure the son of a former poster boy playing the same game must feel at one of the most scrutinised & perhaps despised clubs in the competition but that’s just a presumption. It’s also not an excuse.
So what did Andrew Johns reveal in his book that goes against everything we think these guys need in being brought down to size? Remember as you read this that Johns could be argued as one of the greatest players to ever play the game. What did he say about himself? "To be brutally honest - I hated Joey Johns. I hated the superstar image I was perceived to be and I hated as much the person I really was.” In two sentences Johns has revealed the battle that some sociologists and psychologists would posit that many people seem to face. How do you find a peace within yourself when you hate both the expectation of who people want you to be but also that you hate the real you?
I ended up having more shockers than I remember while drinking amongst the fun but it turned out for me that when life changed it had nothing to do with achievement or fame. I was sitting in a church a bitter and broken man who suddenly felt the peace of being enough. My experience suggests that you have to understand and accept the substance of who you are. Some people when they hear that I don’t drink anymore automatically assume that somehow I’m positioning myself as better than them but in reality I was someone who found it difficult not to drink myself into oblivion. I don’t drink because it is a weakness in me. Simply, when I realized I was enough I didn’t need to drink to appease others or the social pressures. Do I miss the overwhelming feeling of getting drunk with my mates? Absolutely! I chose to become a teetotaler five years ago despite knowing how much it would cost me because it was going to cost me more.
Pearce, in my opinion has to face the battle within, understand why he drinks, be kind where the shame lurks and find not just a sense of who is and what he stands for; but also realise that true strength is to be able to stand alone without needing to dance to anyone else’s beat. A real hardened working class bloke said to me last year you’ve got to challenge these blokes with ...‘ do you have the character to carry your talent’? It was the typical wisdom held by those who have had to battle and recover from many mistakes made through life’s challenges. I’ve met a man who had lived in a sewerage drain for part of his life as an alcoholic and heard of a woman living out of the bins in Town Hall Square in Sydney both of whom found the strength to turn their lives around. I am hopeful this could be the story of someone who transforms his life and helps change those around him who struggle with the same battle. My experience is that we will want to minimize what he’s done & to be honest I’ve heard of much worse but I for one believe he can and must start the process now. For the rooster has crowed too many times.
James Holbeck speaks in schools, for sporting teams & corporate engagements.