Will Lance Armstrong travel the path back?

Lance Armstrong cannot be coerced to do teshuvah. One thing, though, is certain. Should Armstrong hearken to an inner calling to pursue that path, he will also hear a multitude of cheering cancer patients urging him to steer sharply towards a spiritual finish line that might actually be located behind him.

Lance Armstrong 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Lance Armstrong 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the span of just three days this past August, newspaper headlines were dominated by two men who shared the same All-American surname. The proximity of Lance Armstrong’s refusal to dispute allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs and the death of Neil Armstrong drove office banter around the world to “compare and contrast exercises” that alternated between the profound and the cynical.
Who was the greater hero? Was it more impressive to be the first winner of the space-race or a seven-time winner of the Tour de France? Whose quest offered a more inspiring example of hope? Did the greater impact on mankind arise from the astronaut’s iconic small steps or the athlete’s big-time pedaling? And just who really wore the dorkier helmet?
That was the public debate. In the oncology wards where I work, the conversation focused exclusively on the erstwhile champion cyclist and perennial cancer survivor. My people needed to vent about Lance.
Although oncology is a field predicated on statistics, it is impossible to quantify how much Lance Armstrong, thrice-recognized as a hero, has meant to cancer patients. First, by persevering through an aggressive regimen of surgery and chemotherapy, he famously overcame an advanced tumor that had spread to his lungs and brain. Then, only after beating cancer, he repeatedly emerged victorious in one of the most grueling sporting events. And as an ongoing finale, he erected a fund that has distributed approximately half a billion dollars to foster cancer research.
Armstrong thus defined the concept of the “triple-threat” for sports fans, and really all human beings. For cancer patients, his fall from grace was beyond disillusioning. It was devastating. One patient came in for a routine follow-up visit after the news broke and cried, “It’s not just that my bubble burst. A part of me died.”
Everyone deserves to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Maybe Doug Ulman, the CEO of Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation, does more than put a positive spin on a media release when he boasts that his organization continues to raise record sums of money and that, “The best thing about this outcome is that we can now move forward without any distraction.” It’s hard, though, not to be distracted when the ultimate competitor forgoes a fight. In choosing to be quiet and, moreover, by deciding to quit, there appears to be an admission of guilt.
After all, we’re talking about Lance Armstrong! Another of my patients, a 57- year-old woman who defines herself less as a breast cancer survivor than as a solution-oriented person, offered a novel suggestion during an informal support group that I lead every week. Referring to the repentance ritual popular during the Jewish High Holidays, she proposed that “Lance Armstrong should try teshuvah.”
An older man quickly countered with skepticism, “It won’t work.”
His doubt, he emphasized, stemmed not from Armstrong’s being an avowed atheist but from the fact that teshuvah, or repentance, requires (according to Maimonides) resisting the types of temptation that initially lead us astray. With the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) having banned Armstrong for life from participating in “elite-level” sporting events, the athlete has no opportunity to face his temptations, so he cannot achieve penitence.
Our group didn’t feel like prolonging this debate, but the discussion compelled me to think some more about teshuvah. USADA has indeed prevented us from applying an outcomes measure to Armstrong’s teshuvah. But the journey of teshuvah, the process, begins in an entirely different place.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz points out that teshuvah – which is metaphorically characterized as taking a road back – is more than repentance from sin. It is a spiritual re-awakening. And for such mystical arousal to take place we must acknowledge past mistakes and resolve to adopt a better path that is more aligned with the core values that we have abandoned. Put concretely, teshuvah is then a change of direction that begins with an about-face, a “return,” that is never easy.
After three decades as a practicing oncologist, I still marvel at my patients’ abilities to make difficult changes of direction, irrespective of age or the “baggage” they carry. Patients often adopt new perspectives that enable them to overcome obstacles of spiritual inertia and to grow as human beings.
In the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Nizikin; Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter IV: Mishnah 1), the Second Century sage Ben Zoma alludes to such feats by asking, “Who is the true hero?” The response is: “One who conquers his own conscience.”
True heroism emerges, then, when we subdue our instincts and modify our behavior. Surely that behavior modification can occur despite USADA’s ruling against Armstrong’s return to conditions of original temptation.
That being so, Lance Armstrong now has a remarkable opportunity to become a hero for the fourth time. This would entail acknowledging personal flaws and perhaps initiating frank dialogue on shortcomings within a professional sport where dozens of participants now confess to doping in order just to “keep up” with their rivals.
Such disclosure by Armstrong will not be easy but could be the first phase of one more comeback that would surely inspire others to do their own heroic soul-searching. While Armstrong will never again stand on the medal podium, he could still have a platform.
Lance Armstrong cannot be coerced to do teshuvah. For Armstrong, like anybody else, teshuvah will be activated only if his silence morphs into a disquieting awareness that prods him. One thing, though, is certain. Should Armstrong hearken to an inner calling to pursue that path, he will also hear a multitude of cheering cancer patients urging him to steer sharply towards a spiritual finish line that might actually be located behind him. Sometimes a small step backwards can be a giant leap forwards.
The author is professor and chairman of the Institute of Radiotherapy at Tel Aviv Medical Center and cofounder of the NGO Life’s Door. Earlier this year, he was awarded the Israeli Citation for Volunteerism by President Shimon Peres.