I’m going to commit a cardinal sin and admit something that should never be said publicly.
I didn’t watch the Rio Olympics.
It’s not that I don’t stand in awe of these superhuman athletes defying physical boundaries to go faster, higher, stronger – I just never sat down to watch. Somehow the games never made it high enough on my priority list. But if you’re like me and didn’t really see the Rio games, you’ve got another shot.
The Paralympics begin today, and every American should know about one athlete in particular: Brad Snyder. A Navy Lieutenant serving in Afghanistan, Brad served America as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Officer – and gave up his eyes in the process. An explosion rendered Brad completely blind in both eyes, resetting his life wholly. While at the beginning of his journey he got lost in his own home, Brad’s internal grit propelled him into the one realm in which he still felt like himself: the pool.
“When I lost my vision,” the two-time 2012 London gold medalist explained, “I struggled through every step of my normal life. When I hopped into the pool though, I didn’t feel like I struggled…I felt independent. I felt capable.” Brad had begun swimming at age seven and continued competitively through college. Returning to the pool was more than grasping for normalcy; it was Brad’s way of overcoming his limitation and surpassing apathy.
When Brad won the gold, he gave it to his mother, who recalled that intimate moment: “Brad took the medal and put it around my neck, and said that this was the medal that we had won together for our fight for the last year.”
Such tenderness reminds me of a personal connection to the Special Olympics.
My late uncle, born with Down’s Syndrome, had the most compassionate and loving heart of anyone I’ve ever known – with plenty of spunk and temerity on the side. Though prevented from living a “normal life” which he defined as driving a car and being a husband (two things he always wanted), my uncle surpassed his “handicap” and showed the rest of us what love really looked like.
As a young man, he competed in track and field in the Special Olympics and even got a medal out of it. For his entire life, even in the twilight years of Alzheimer’s when he couldn’t speak or quite remember who we were, that medal hung in his nursing home room. Before those years of imposed forgetfulness came, my sweet uncle would go up to complete strangers and say, “I competed in the Special Olympics – and I won a medal!” He was so proud of it – and really, it reflected his quiet determination to transcend what others saw as handicap.
Isn’t it interesting how people we first see as limited or unable end up teaching us the most about grit, triumph, and love?
As a Hill staffer, I’ve learned quickly that words like “limited” and “unable” are unacceptable in Washington’s pecking order – not because they’re bad words, but because they reveal perceived weakness. I’ve found myself in awkward moments where, in front of large meetings of colleagues and strangers, I had to openly admit that I didn’t know the answer to a question directed at me. What I thought should have been a straightforward exchange quickly grew uncomfortable for everyone in the room because I committed the cardinal sin (other than not watching the Olympics) of admitting I didn’t know something.
And I know why that pressure’s there. We’re here to make sure our bosses never have to say those words themselves. The smallest public snafu can turn into political self-immolation, with Twitter and cable news dousing the unfortunate human in kerosene (or at least in our immaturity, that’s what we think it feels like!). We’re also afraid to admit we don’t know something when we simply don’t understand policy mechanics, or when we question the cost of a political battle our side wages. It’s a calculated risk to say the words, “I don’t know.” It feels like we are limiting and labeling ourselves as insufficient, disqualifying ourselves from the hallowed halls of power everyone in this city scrambles to enter.
But I look at athletes like Brad and family like my uncle – one with a physical disability, another with a mental handicap. And I see in both a fearlessness in owning their limitation and turning it into motivation. They weren’t concerned about keeping up appearances; they accepted their lives and chose to thrive. It seems like a small leap, then, as public servants to admit that, despite our pedigrees and fellowships, we don’t always understand, and we don’t always know.
That we’re humans.
Sure, it may seem like a small thing to say – but if I’m any indication, I can guarantee you that admitting this will be a big humility check for people working in D.C. And here’s why that matters: when we say we don’t understand, we open ourselves to listening to someone else who may actually get it. We also become receptive to alternative viewpoints and messengers. If the goal is grace and truth, unity and justice, then admitting “I don’t know” is actually a step toward that end.
Because we’re only going to get there together.
Now go watch the Paralympics.
WEEKLY ACTION ITEM:
This week, pick an athlete to follow through the Paralympic Games in Rio. How does that athlete's personal story challenge you to be more authentic in your work, or less consumed with trying to project the perfect image in a cut-throat work culture?
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