Simone Biles and Our Misunderstood Concept of Courage

When choosing between prudence and recklessness, it takes courage to choose prudence.

Every now and then you can read a sentence or two of prose that can change your life. I’ve had that experience more than once reading C.S. Lewis, but these words, from The Screwtape Letters, have stood out to many as much as anything he’s ever written. “Courage is not simply one of the virtues,” wrote Lewis, “but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” 

Until I read those words, I’d had a more cramped view of the term. There was physical courage, the willingness to risk your body in the face of mortal danger. And there was moral courage, which usually manifested itself in the willingness to accept, say, career or reputational risks to make a righteous stand. But to Lewis, courage is essentially tied to every virtue, to the point where we don’t even know if we possess the virtue until it’s tested.

Let’s put it this way. Do you know if you’re truly a loving person until your capacity to love is tested? Do you know if you're an honest person until your integrity can cost you something tangible? Do you even know if you’re humble until you face the praise and flattery of men? It is the moment when a virtue is truly tested that courage is called for, and courage is never separated from the virtue itself.

Thus, when it comes to physical danger, for example, we draw distinctions between recklessness and courage. Recklessness can be breathtaking to observe, but it’s also typically foolish. Sometimes it’s evil. We also draw distinctions between courage and obstinance, which can be deployed for good or ill depending on the purpose of the resistance. 

Our culture places a great deal of emphasis on “authenticity.” Exhibiting authenticity is often viewed as courageous all by itself, but not every exhibition of authenticity is correct. There are times when stoicism and restraint are the far greater virtues. 

And that brings us to Simone Biles. The facts at this point are relatively clear. After vaulting poorly and costing her team dearly, Biles withdrew from the gymnastics team competition and then later withdrew from the individual all-around competition. She cited acute mental distress and used a term of art in gymnastics called the “twisties.”

The word sounds benign, maybe even a tad on the cute side, but for gymnasts it has profound meaning. The Washington Post’s Emily Giambalvo explained it well. The term, “well-known in the gymnastics community,” describes a “frightening predicament”: 

When gymnasts have the “twisties,” they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.

More:

“Simply, your life is in danger when you’re doing gymnastics,” said Sean Melton, a former elite gymnast who dealt with the twisties throughout his career. “And then when you add this unknown of not being able to control your body while doing these extremely dangerous skills, it adds an extreme level of stress. And it’s terrifying, honestly, because you have no idea what is going to happen.”

Biles is a survivor of Larry Nassar’s abuse. As Sally Jenkins writes in her own powerful story in the Post, she came back from possible retirement in part to “ensure some accountability.” As Biles said, “If there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side.”

And it’s not like the scandal is over. The past isn’t even the past. Again, here’s Jenkins: 

It was only two weeks ago that the Justice Department’s inspector general released a report on the Nassar case, in which Biles learned in new infuriating detail how corrupt officials hushed up evidence that the gymnastics doctor was a serial sex assaulter and how then-USAG chief Steve Penny traded favors with local FBI agent Jay Abbott to bottom-drawer it.

There’s still more:

Here’s another bulletin: The Olympics is no happy anniversary for Nassar’s victims. “It is a huge trigger,” says Rachael Denhollander, whose police report against Nassar in August 2016 finally triggered the Michigan law enforcement investigation — led by women — that took him down.

“This time of year is awful because it brings back what it was like,” she says. “It brings back how hard it was to speak up, to verbalize it all for the first time. This is when it all came out. And the body does keep score. It remembers those times of year and those anniversaries. I can’t even imagine trying to function.”

There’s no question that Biles has exhibited physical courage throughout her career. She won the national championships “jumping and landing on broken toes; she has won a world championship with a kidney stone.”

Moreover, the pressure on young gymnasts in the past to risk permanent, catastrophic injury has been overwhelming. Yesterday, former Olympic champion Dominique Moceanu tweeted this:

So a great gymnast (the greatest in world history) who has “played hurt” many times before is persevering in the face of historic abuse and an ongoing scandal, and she’s still participating in a system that (despite recent reforms) has engaged in the systematic exploitation of young girls. In those circumstances, she faced a potentially catastrophically-dangerous crisis that not only profoundly risked her health, it also risked the success of her national team.

What is the virtue in play here? Prudence is one. A sport is not worth your life. It’s not worth your spine. Thus the comparisons to, say, basketball players who “freeze up” and brick three after three are off-base. If LeBron James has a bad game, he’s not risking paralysis with every shot. Moreover, the desire to demonstrate your toughness is not worth the harm to your squad.

Thus, the right-wing critics who piled on again and again and again and again and again decrying Biles’s alleged lack of toughness weren’t so much calling for courage but for recklessness. In spite of all of the factors above, they wanted her to walk out to the mat, fly through the air, and let the chips fall where they may. 

The virtue in play was prudence. The vice was recklessness. So when Biles committed to prudence at a testing point more dramatic and high-profile than any of us will likely experience in a thousand lifetimes, she demonstrated exactly the kind of courage that C.S. Lewis so powerfully defined.

One last thing …

On a much lighter note, you know you can count on me for that sweet, sweet nerd trailer content. So here it is. The next Ghostbusters. Enjoy!