Our Town: The great fear of success

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Before you gain success you must answer the question of the Sphinx.” (Photo provided by Tom Ferraro)

Week after week the sports fans are treated to the sight of athletes who must stare down fear in order to enter the glorious city of fame and fortune.

This week was no different. The player standing on the threshold of fame was the swashbuckling Spaniard Jon Rahm and the setting was The Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin Ohio.

Rahm was 8 shots in the lead with only nine holes to go and all he had to do was par in to win $1,674,000 and take over the hallowed No. 1 spot in World Ranking.
When an athlete nears the finish line he must answer a riddle that an invisible gatekeeper will ask. This is what we call liminal space and the gatekeeper always stands guard over this mysterious passageway.

There are many examples of this. In the play “Oedipus Rex” written by Sophocles in the year 429 BC, the Sphinx asks all travelers a riddle before they enter the city of Thebes.

The Sphinx askes “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed, then two-footed and then three-footed?” The answer to this riddle is “mankind” since we all start out crawling on fours, then walking on twos and then must use a cane in old age.
This riddle implies that we must have self-awareness before we can enter the kingdom of happiness. However, if you don’t know yourself through and through the monster will eat you up and kill your dreams.
I don’t think that the fame monster was pleased with the way Jon Rahm first answered his riddle because before you knew it Jon Rahm he was racking up all sorts of bogeys and penalties on his way to his glorious city of success.

Thanks to talent and the confidence of youth, he managed to stumble across the finish line ahead but the passageway was shaky and filled with terror both for himself and his adoring fans.
In golf, there are enumerable fears that one must face on the road to victory. For the casual spectator, the star athlete may not look nervous but I assure you they are. In golf, a benign downhill two-foot putt can produce shame and despair if missed, and conversely even greater and more unconscious fear of the putt is made.

Going deep is scary.
To date, there is only one golfer who speaks knowingly about the fear of victory and that was Jack Nicklaus. He realized that most golfers fear winning and so he would patiently await their collapse by playing conservatively on the way in.
Freud was the first to pick up on man’s fear of success by analyzing “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles written way back in 429 B.C.

This was the play that included the riddle of the sphinx and included Oedipus Rex killing his father and marrying his mother. Freud’s analysis of this play gave birth to the Castration Complex which is another way of saying people unconsciously fear victory because it could produce dreaded retaliation by the father symbolized by the opponent.
My favorite modern-day story of the fear of success was well described in the film “Yesterday” by director Danny Boyle.

When sudden fame thrust upon the lead character Jack Malik, his agent Deborah Hammer warned him “Buddy, what I’m offering you is the great and glorious poisoned chalice of money and fame. If you don’t want to drink it…go back and have a warm beer in bonny England. If you do want to drink, I need to hear you say ‘ Debra, I’m so thirsty, give me the goddamn chalice.’”

She was warning him that success will have its challenges and its problems.
The other theory about success which has gained traction over the last 70 years relates to shame versus pride. Many turn to sports to undo shame instilled in childhood and this serves as both a motivator to success as well as a barrier.
In “The Divine Comedy” Dante realized that a hungry she-wolf, a ravenous leopard and a ferocious lion were blocking his way to heaven. He had to go through the circles of hell and purgatory first before he gained entrance to the heavenly plane.

This is how it is for athletes and for the rest of us. One must solve the riddle of who we really are and are we willing to face our deepest fears before we gain access to victory, fame, success or happiness.

That is a word is why so many fail. After all who really wants to go through hell and purgatory to get to heaven?

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