“I wanted to control the narrative.” That phrase has sprung out of the otherwise unsurprising Lance Armstrong doping confession. The need to “control the narrative” captures much human motivation and underlies multiple decisions. If we can indeed control the narrative, we can keep ourselves protected, lie with impunity and still look intact, together and successful.
Armstrong’s real problems lie far beyond the lying and the doping. Those transgressions can be seen as primarily self-destructive. But Armstrong was other-destructive because he insisted that all who rode with him had to submit themselves to the full doping regimen AND routinely lie about it.
Frankly, when the ultimate motivation is winning at all costs, that was a smart and necessary move by Armstrong. To even suggest that he could have won all those competitions without the doping help is simply preposterous. They were all doping and everyone knew it.
The real issue for Armstrong is that had to control all words that were written or said about him in order to feed and support his nearly super-human athletic and health mystique. He did so by bullying, intimidation, lawsuits and lying.
An extraordinarily gifted and well-known preacher, Walker Railey, held the pulpit at First Methodist in downtown Dallas for years. Railey was engaging in an extra-marital affair and needed to deflect attention from his character deficits AND promote an aura of victimization in need of sympathy. So he created threatening notes, sent them to himself and then publicly announced that he wore a bullet-proof vest under his preaching vestments. Now, who is going to question something like that?
When his wife was found strangled and nearly dead in their garage, the immediate assumption was that Railey’s presumed assailant had instead gone after the more vulnerable wife.
It was an incredible piece of deflection that almost worked. Railey, that masterful preacher and storyteller, also masterfully controlled the narrative very much as Armstrong did. Until he, too, was exposed, although never actually convicted in criminal court (a civil court held him liable for the damages, however). He, too, lost all public credibility.
It all starts with twisting the truth. The fear of exposure has always been a central motivation for lying. Fear that if others could peer into our own souls and see the real truths there, they would immediately reject us.
So, we restructure our stories, our own narratives, with partial-truths, and sometimes outright lies and deceptions. We also do all possible to deflect light from shining on our inner lives by pointing to the darkness in others. I call this the, “But Mom, he started it” syndrome. Then, and this part is absolutely necessary as well, we paint ourselves as wonderfully sympathetic so no one will carefully examine the story.
If keeping our own story intact depends on others also supporting it, then we must do what Armstrong did: find a way to make sure others will not in some way expose the truth. That’s what leads to emotional blackmail or worse and unending pleas for sympathy that become more and more urgent as the narrative, the story that has been holding this together, begins to unravel.
I invite us to think this week about the ways each of us seeks to control our narratives.
Where have we so compromised our basic truths that we need to deflect attention elsewhere?
Where do we need to control or intimidate or even threaten, however subtly, others in order to keep our own stories intact and free from examination?
Let’s spend a little less time condemning Armstrong and see what we can learn about ourselves from his public humiliation.