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Sticks and stones may break your bones... but what about words?

Two news stories caught my eye this morning, both from the sports pages - but don't turn off if you're not sporty, because that's not what interested me.

The first was about the English cricketer Moeen Ali, who said in his autobiography that back in 2015 an Australian cricketer called him 'Osama.' The story today was that the enquiry had been shelved because it couldn't get any further evidence. But what interested me was how effective this dreadful tactic had been, effective enough that Moeen had remembered it for years and made a point of including it in the book of his life. It may remind you of the insult from a 13 year old child in 2013 that devastated AFL footballer Adam Goodes. There are cricketers and footballers who are known to thrive on being goaded, to the extent that smart opponents give them the silent treatment instead, knowing it will be much more effective.

The other was about Tiger Woods, who after years of back problems and personal woes had just won his very first tournament in five years (the same year Adam Goodes was subjected to that racist taunt). The piece that interested me talked about how when he was 11 his father started standing behind him, swearing and abusing him, not because he wasn't playing well, but to harden him against the shouting and insults he would face as a player. And he did: “I heard it at school and during tournaments,” says Woods. His father wanted to teach him how to take it. “He helped,” Tiger wrote in his autobiography, “in ways other people thought were hurtful.”

The contrast between these two stories gave me food for thought. Two thoughts, actually. The first is that it is simply not possible to know what someone else is experiencing, and that the best we can do is guess based on very limited information. I was privileged to be involved in setting up a counselling service for survivors of the 2009 Victorian bushfires, and I was struck by how different were the reactions of those survivors to their experiences. Some had witnessed and experienced things no-one should ever have to, and despite suffering terribly, told me that they knew they could get through it and come out the other side. Others, looked at objectively, had not gone through nearly as much - and yet were finding the burden so much harder, and in some cases impossible, to bear. It seemed that it wasn't possible to tell how someone would go, based solely upon an assessment of their experiences. It's fairly obvious, I suppose: we are all different, and that includes differing in our ability to bear suffering.

The second thought is that these two stories show us the two dimensions of suffering: what happens to you, and what you make of it... or what you decide to make of it... or what you are able to control of what you make of it. Woods is certainly, in terms of his resilience and sheer bloodymindedness, an exceptional human being. Could he have been just as strong without his father's harshness? It's impossible to say. From one point of view, his father's treatment of him is child abuse, and I could never recommend it as a way to 'toughen up' a child. Yet he himself believes that his father's taunting taught him resilience and the refusal to give up that enabled him to get back onto the winner's podium after years of pain, both physical and emotional. His father gave him a safe word to use when he couldn't take the insults and the swearing any more: he refused to use it, believing that it would be a sign of giving in.

Tiger's father wanted to instill resilience, which is admirable - and resilience is a highly useful life skill that appears to be in short supply today. His methods were brutal and there may well have been other kinder and therefore better ways. According to Tiger himself the results were effective - at least, in terms of installing resilience. On the other hand, and as a final thought, one can't help wondering that if this is an example of his parental style, whether it may have had other, damaging effects upon Tiger as a man...



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