Being Your Own Hero

OK, I admit it. I was disappointed. I was disappointed when Tiger Woods, just a few short months after the "SUV incident" outside his home in Florida, staged a press conference, stood behind a podium, and recited a canned apology written in corporate-speak by the damage-control PR spin doctors at Nike. Like a dutiful boy, he was dressed in a suit, clean-shaven, looking humble and respectful to the corporate sponsors who made his public career that much more lucrative. But beneath the surface was a whole story waiting to be uncovered, spoken, and shared.

I secretly (and not so secretly) cheered Tiger on when he hit the apparent depths of his personal crisis - the extent of his adultery revealed, the intensity of the pain he has kept hidden beneath the socially acceptable, corporate endorsement-worthy veneer of relentless competitiveness and focus.

I saw this as an opportunity for Tiger to deliver his real "medicine" to the world, and to show us how a hero falls, journeys through the abyss of his own self-discovery, and emerges whole in a different way. With a different message about heroicism, with a more solid foundation on which to stand, with a deeper message than can be conveyed merely by counting wins and trophies.

I secretly thought, "Wow, now THIS is Tiger's real moment." I thought he would go into seclusion and embark on a healing journey, away from the limelight, away from golf, away from his lifelong drugs of choice - winning and getting public recognition.

I'm reminded of the David Whyte poem, "The Well of Grief":

"Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,
...will never know the source from which we drink,
...nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else."

I secretly thought, "This is Tiger's 'well of grief' moment. I can't wait to see what emerges from the bottom of this."

Just weeks later, I walked by a television tuned into ESPN and saw Tiger back on the golf course, competing in the Masters. There were casual remarks from the commentators about this "comeback", but for the most part it was "business as usual". He had the emotionless expression of competition on his face, as always. There was no evidence of anything that had transpired in the news just weeks earlier. He was back to "doing his job".

And what message are we, the public, supposed to take away from this "heroic" return to the "job" of business as usual? Has Tiger put the incident behind him now? Should we simply leave his private life alone, and just focus on being entertained by his golf skills? Is this the model of courage that we're expecting from our public heroes, sports or otherwise?

All of it disappointed me.

I have felt for the past several weeks that there is something inside me that wants to find expression. There are words that want to find their way into the world, to give life and breath to the truth in my heart. They get caught somewhere in my chest, my shoulders, my throat. And I've been feeling into the reasons why.

This week I realized it's because I was hoping someone like Tiger would make it OK to be a public figure, someone who has attained legendary status through hard work, competitiveness, and discipline to develop his talents, someone who has achieved beyond anyone's wildest expectations - to acknowledge his own humanness. To show that even a legend shares the tenderness of the human condition. To demonstrate that no matter how high you fall from, you can get up, and you can emerge whole, with an equally powerful message from your moments of weakness as from your moments of strength.

Instead, he took the corporate political entertainment route. He dusted himself off, put on a fresh shirt, and stepped right back out there on the stage. "The show must go on," as the old adage says.

But what I feel we are so hungry for - the show we wish we could see, in all honesty and transparency and without any regard for entertainment value - is the show of even one person's truth, undramatized. Yes, the pain. Yes, the journey of living through the pain. Yes, the fear. And the journey of moving through fear. Yes, the joy and peace and freedom that emerge in the only way that nature works - by going through it.

I am aware that maybe I'm so disappointed in Tiger's choices because I have a deep longing for permission to do what I know I need to do. I've been waiting for some signal that I'll be OK, that it'll be OK, if I start to talk about what I've really learned about myself, and how I've really discovered my own sources of joy and peace. How everything I once thought to be absolutely true has come into question, and how I have been slowly, day by day, setting myself free. How I have had to look at every painful belief I've held so tightly, how I have trained myself to become more familiar with these beliefs, so that I might gently let them go, and love myself for doing so. How I've managed to cycle through this work with curiosity, openness, and willingness to endure whatever I've needed to in order to reveal the next layer of peace.

But there are parts of it that I'm afraid will look ugly, that will brand me as a "bad" person, that will confirm to the world how I failed in some way, that will concede my own defeat.

And yet I know there is freedom on the other side of telling the truth, being able to name not only what brings me alive, but what breaks my heart. I learned this myself last year at a weekend called "Real Speaking", where I stood among 6 important strangers and practiced publicly speaking my heart's truth. Most of my words got caught in my throat, when I got to the really juicy stuff. It was caught there by fear. I couldn't even name the fear at that time, but now I am closer. I am more prepared, strengthened by my daily practice of comparatively new muscles called trust, peace, and allowing. I feel that something is about to be hatched, to be born, from my finding a voice for these words. There is such fear attached to not knowing what will come out, not knowing how I'll steel myself for the response of letting it out for the world to see.

And so I sit with my disappointment in Tiger. Since he didn't become the model I wanted him to be, I am left with finding the inspiration within myself - the knowledge that what my heart has to say is of value in the world. With or without corporate sponsors.

Here I go...

An Open Letter to Tiger Woods

Dear Tiger: Most of the world cannot begin to imagine what you are going through right now, or what you have been going through for most of your life. Because of your position in the limelight, with all cameras pointing on your every move, gossip mongers foraging for table scraps falling from your every misstep, and would-be corporate sponsors hoping you'd remain constant as the next horse to bet on, we now get to see the part of your life you hoped would stay private, hidden away, silent. And it isn't pretty. It doesn't play so well on the billboards, on the covers of magazines, or on websites touting you as a role model for young people, young African-Americans, young athletes, young dreamers of all kinds.

But I beg to differ. I am reminded of a phrase spoken to me by a wise teacher: "We inspire others not through our perfection, but through our imperfections." I'm here to say - at some risk to my own reputation, no matter how small in comparison - that how you face this colossal challenge, this deep well you must dive to the bottom of, this unfathomable darkness, could in fact serve as your greatest gift to the world.

The few conversations I've had with people about your current challenges have indicated to me that they don't  understand how this could have possibly happened to you. They don't really care. They're just all too eager to drop you from their list of admired public figures, and let you figure out your own mess on your own. They don't want to see how you got to this point. They just want it all to go away. But you can't do that. It's your life, and it's not going away.

I have no idea what it's like to be the top golfer in the world, to carry the weight of "legendary" status as you do, to be held up as The One to beat, to be in demand with every breath you take. I also have no idea what it's like to have the responsibility of your own family - a wife and two children to whom you've promised yourself.

But I do understand something about what it's like to be trained from early childhood to do something well. To take pride in yourself through your performance, your skill, your ability to compete. While you were in your garage with your dad at age two, swinging a golf club, I was in my home in Libertyville, Illinois, practicing piano and then violin every day from the age of three. I enjoyed performing, I enjoyed competing, and I enjoyed doing well. I reached my own peaks - Carnegie Hall at age eight, Pope John Paul at the Vatican at age eleven, the Kennedy Center at age thirteen, international competitions and performances as a way of life. I also knew that I was not in "full throttle" mode, that our family held back from the complete sacrifices that other families made for their children's musical development, that we were striking our own definition of balance throughout those years.

I also understand something about having parents - so loving, so hopeful, so proud, so dedicated - cheering me on at every moment, making my success the center of their own lives, and investing every cell of themselves in my future. I understand being raised to value myself through my performance on the various playing fields that life presents - climbing higher and higher towards whatever summit was next, whether it be the education ladder or the career status chain. I reached my own summits there too - I graduated with honors from Harvard, I completed medical school without really even wanting to practice medicine, and I managed to prove everyone wrong when I started as an unpaid intern and eventually got hired and promoted to partner level at a venture capital finance firm, right out of medical school.

I understand something about reaching the "summit" and then having to hold on, stay there, or keep going higher (perhaps by growing wings if necessary), because that's what life was supposed to be about. I was told that my purpose in life was to climb to the highest summit I could find. And then what? No one ever mentioned that. But I didn't question it either, until I stood there with my own two feet.

I understand something about feeling like you have no space of your own where you can be silent, check in with yourself, or feel anything - except when you're "on". Maybe that's why you filled your calendar with tour events and competitions. Maybe that's where you felt most safe. I understand having a job where every day you're on display, and how you do everything matters, to the point where all of your training, all the hours and years of practicing, are called upon in every moment. Sometimes you yourself even marvel at where it comes from, how you manage to finesse things, pull them off and impress other people (they're smiling and clapping, aren't they? they're paying to see you, aren't they?) while inside, you feel disconnected from it all, as if it's all happening outside yourself. Mostly you wonder how you're going to find the time to just breathe and create the inner life you know is yours but you've never allowed yourself the space to consider. Does any of this sound familiar?

I have no idea what it's like to have taken on the responsibility of your own marriage and two kids. I have not had the same faith to make those promises to anyone yet. I'm trying to learn first by making promises to myself before I venture into that territory. But I do know something about putting myself out there as a role model for so many other people - children, their parents, even their grandparents. My next step out of venture finance was to start my own entrepreneurial venture. As the founder of a school and the one-on-one mentor to children, every time I stepped in to my work, I faced a sea of expectant looks that I was determined not to disappoint. I had been trained for too long, I had become too good, I had accumulated too much to consider letting them down.

So imagine - and I'm sure you can - what it felt like, once I had reached another summit, accomplished another set of goals, only to realize that the view from the top wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and not knowing what to do! Not knowing how to come down gracefully. Not knowing how to admit what I saw from where I stood.

I know what it's like to have created something - a phenomenon, really - with the gifts that you have been given, and the hard work you put in every day of your life, and to watch other people - people you loved - become attached to their experience of "it". Only the "it" they are attached to is YOU. And all the while you know that you've sacrificed a core part of yourself that you have every right to cherish and to express in the world - your freedom.

I have no idea what it's like to carry multimillion dollar endorsement contracts, see your face on TV, billboards, and products. Or to then have your personal phone messages, your quiet moments of desperation, splattered on the cheap pages of tabloids and the internet, for all to see. I'm lucky in this sense, enjoying the privilege of relative anonymity, and being able to walk down any street without being recognized.

But I understand the need to find outlets for expressing your confusion, wrestling with difficult emotions, grappling with the things in your heart that you struggle to understand. I understand the need to be heard. I understand the lengths you might find yourself going to in order to feel heard. My outlet is writing. I discovered blogging several years ago, and tiptoed into the waters of this new medium. My first attempt was an experiment in giving a slightly more personal take on my business. I would slip in links to articles that I found interesting, tell stories that illustrated the points I so desperately wanted to convey in my teaching, and publicize events related to my school. I never went off-script, always remembering that this blog was part of my public performance. I never shared my struggles, the moments that caused me the most turmoil, or the situations that caused me to ask the deepest questions.

For awhile I swallowed these stories. I journaled privately about them. Or I called a friend and talked their ears off. I wore out more than a few friends during that time. But no one ever told me I could feel exhausted. No one ever told me I could choose my time on the summit, that I didn't have to stay there if I didn't want to. I kept thinking my life would mean nothing if I didn't find that highest peak possible and just plant myself there, digging in my heels, just because I could.

So I kept on swallowing. Pretty soon I didn't like what was spilling out the corners of my mouth, into the relationships I really cherished in my life. I felt disconnected from the people I wanted to feel closest to. I had nothing to say, because I was too full of the pain and confusion that I thought was mine alone to deal with. I didn't want to live that way.

So I returned to writing. Unlike you, Tiger, I found my refuge not in gratuitous sex with strangers, but in pouring my emotions onto the page. I created a completely private blog, read by only one other person. It was important to me that someone else besides me read my writing. I needed even this tiny way to feel heard. I dumped all of my juiciest stories there every day. No boundaries, no editing, and no holds barred. I recognized it as a dumping ground for all the piles of crap that otherwise would have accumulated in my heart. It was safe. It was private. It still is.

I discovered my longing to be a writer. I discovered that I was already a writer - I wrote every day. Knowing what I knew about practicing violin and piano every day, I took great comfort in my daily writing. It gave me the place of expression I so longed for. It gave me a sense of voice, when for so long I had stayed outwardly silent.

And it gave me a place to make mistakes, without blame or judgment.

I'm not sure if you count among your aspirations in life to have an integrated feeling of "what's outside" accurately reflecting "what's inside". But I do. I didn't like living a double life, holding all of these painful thoughts secretly, dealing with them privately. It felt inauthentic and also unnecessary. I dreamed of a world that would be freed by the great gift of truthful expression.

So I started another blog, called "Truth Love Beauty". This time, it was public, although I did nothing to publicize it. I kept writing on it, nearly every day. I chronicled the real emotions I was facing as I journeyed toward freedom. I didn't have a script. It was not a performance. It was practice. I was bearing everything to the tiny universe of people who might find my blog and read it, but mostly I did it for myself. I was surprised to see that some strangers actually found me! I was humbled by their words of encouragement and support.

Two weeks ago, I made the next big step toward integrating what's outside and what's inside by bringing an end to my school, and making room for something new to emerge. I launched a new website, put a new face on my previous brand, and stepped through all my fear by placing links to both of my blogs on the home page. I stand here, squarely in the unknown, with the strength of commitment to my own integration and full expression as I offer myself in service to others.

And it's not all pretty! Already I'm being tested in my resolve of not editing, not scripting, not having any agenda other than to share openly what it feels like to be me on my particular stretch of the path. I feel blessed to live in a nation that values freedom of expression, open exchange of viewpoints, and the opportunity for all voices to be heard...even on a tiny blog in the corner of the internet.

Today I step into more of my own power in writing this to you. I, having faced some miniature slings and arrows of my own, so tiny in comparison to what you have faced and will face, am here to say that you have the right to work through your mess. You have the right, as we all do, to express your joy as well as your pain, to celebrate your triumphs as well as your deep disappointments, to take every morsel of crap in the truckload of crap that has been dumped on your doorstep, and own it as uniquely yours.

If you have the courage to do the work - to roll up your sleeves and dig your shovel into the massive heap of stuff staring you in the face - you will find the treasure of yourself again. You already know what it means to work from the inside out. Now it's time to go from the outside back in.

Tiger, we are all waiting for you. I, for one, am still cheering for you.

With love and admiration,

Lisa Chu