085: Nothing is Easy
"Nothing is Easy," Anonymous
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A large, grainy black and white photo with a fading scrawl across it is taped the back wall of my office and every day, it keeps me alive.
On Sept. 20, 1964, quarterback Y.A. Tittle dropped back to pass when he was leveled by John Baker of the Pittsburgh Steelers. As a defender intercepted the errant pass and returned it for a touchdown, Tittle managed to pull himself to his knees as photographer Morris Berman snapped the immortal image.
Tittle was helmetless and bloody as he gasped for air, having suffered a cracked sternum and a concussion on the play.
The league’s most valuable player just the year before, Tittle finished the game and the 1964 season with some of the worst statistics of his career. He would later say that no one remembered any of his records, but only that photograph: An image of a broken man who looked like he had nothing left to give.
Years ago, my father procured my copy of the Tittle photograph for me at some sports show somewhere. Adding a rare personalized flourish to the image, Tittle signed it for me with a simple phrase:
“Nothing is easy. –Y.A. Tittle”
I didn’t know that what I had came with a formal title or a real diagnosis. The common words associated with various aspects of my feelings seemed to come close but never quite nail it down: anxiety, depression, moodiness, despair… It was like I was a walking Zoloft commercial.
Certain phrases or stories came close to what I felt. I read once about a college hockey coach whose team had won a national championship. While his players celebrated in the locker room, a friend found him quietly sitting in a hallway, completely drained.
“They had succeeded,” the author explained. “He had avoided failure.”
Years later during a doctoral seminar, a faculty member explained that many of us would have a moment in our careers where we fell down or couldn’t meet expectations. She said that a “moment of doubt” would creep into us, giving us this feeling that someone finally figured out that we aren’t as smart as we were thought to be and that we would basically feel like death. I remembered that because I was feeling like that every single day during that program.
Who the hell am I? I don’t belong here with all these better, stronger, smarter people.
How am I going to survive after school? I won’t have faculty to help me research or teach and I’ll just fail.
What will people think about me when they see me, broken and battered? Will they think, “A tragic tale of wasted potential?” Will they laugh?
About six years ago, I found the term that helped me understand why these thoughts rattled through my head while other people constantly looked at me and my work with amazement:
The hardest part about living life in fear like this is to know that any little thing can knock me on my ass. I read 28 course evaluations today, of which 27 were incredibly positive. One kid essentially told me I needed to get another job and that “anyone who can read a book” could have taught this class.
I can’t remember anything the other 27 said. This one sucks up all the space in my mind.
The kid knows…
I don’t belong here. I’m not good enough. I’m not strong enough. I’m a failure.
It gets worse when there are real issues, such as a colleague with a vendetta or a group of students calling for my ouster. This year has been nothing but that, leading to sleepless nights and anxiety-filled days.
Years ago, I was placed on medication to “level me” with this stuff. This year, the dosages got higher and the number of pills grew as the beatings continued, both from outside and within.
How I feel is almost indescribable.
It’s the feeling that I’m going to fail people who are counting on me.
It’s the feeling that I will lose.
It’s a feeling like I am encircled by a group of violent, angry people who are kicking and beating on me. It’s not physical violence, but it feels the same to me.
I always feel like I’ve fallen to one knee, gasping for air, reaching out for an invisible hand of support, only to be knocked back. It’s something where I can’t curl up and protect myself because I’ll just die if I do. It’s something where I can’t try to escape because the beating will kill me.
It’s that feeling that I have no goddamned hope at all.
Just like any other condition of this type, there’s no pinpointed cause and no true cure. It’s management as opposed to repair.
The thing that makes this difficult for me is that I value solution and completion. I take on a task, I work through the task and I complete the task.
Find the problem, fix the problem.
Even more, the condition lends itself to undercut the most basic security blanket that others can use to help themselves thrive: Prior success.
I have written about a half-dozen books and dozens of other publications. I have a wall full of awards and a curriculum vita that most people would give anything to possess.
Imposter Syndrome tells me none of that matters.
A normal person would see a challenge like writing a book or running a marathon and think, “I have done this before. I have succeeded. If I do what I did last time, I should be in pretty good shape.”
I think, “I got lucky last time. It will never happen again. I’m going to fail and people will be upset with me.”
The beatings will return.
The most incredible thing about Y.A. Tittle was that he played the entire 1964 season. He took an incredible beating, but he kept getting up.
His career was essentially over.
He couldn’t lead his team to a title.
He couldn’t win another MVP.
And yet, he got up.
After each sack, each hit, each violent condemnation of his diminishing skill set, he got up.
He stood again and again and again.
Every time I look at that photo, I think about what courage really is: Getting back up one more time, knowing that is all you can control.
I don’t know if the next day will be better or worse.
I don’t know if I will be able to withstand the next beating.
What I do know is that I will stand up again, spit the blood out of my mouth and tell whatever is tormenting me that day, “You don’t get the best of me, no matter what, because you’re not strong enough to kill me today.”
Each day, I look at that photo and I start again with the simple thought that drives me:
“Nothing is easy.”
About the art:
For this piece, I took the phrase that already keeps this storyteller afloat, and created another reminder for them to keep getting back up and fighting every day.
I connected in a special way with this story, and shared that in writing on the back of the canvas, and I'd like to keep that message just for them. I'm so proud of this person for sharing their experience, and bringing to light what those with imposter syndrome truly deal with each day.