Controlling the Narrative: Lance Armstrong and the Rest of Us

The Dope on Biking“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.

Let’s bring this home a bit and consider the human condition. The famous or infamous may make the news, but most of us seek to control the narrative in some way. If we can do this superbly well, we can render our own deficiencies nearly invisible.

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.

2 thoughts on “Controlling the Narrative: Lance Armstrong and the Rest of Us

  1. I’ve been a fan of Lance since competing in triathlon in the mid to late 80’s when he was a skinny and verrrry fast kid from Plano. Ran into him at a couple of races. Pulled for him as an Olympic cyclist. Prayed for him as a victim of testicular cancer, even more when he chose the role of fighter, not ‘victim'; he would be fighting all the way. Yelled for him as the masterful Tour de France champion he was. And I don’t begrudge him the ‘illegal drugs’ in terms of getting a competitive advantage – he would not say it, but I will: he was up against fully doped teams using the same substances and he still outworked his competition.

    He applied the same zeal and fierce focus to raising the bar in the fight against cancer and calling men and women to lives of hope instead of despair in their battles. He raised not only hopes, but hundreds of millions for research and assistance programs for those in the cancer battle…And yes, I AM a ‘glass-is-overflowing’ kind of guy.

    Was his racing for himself? Undoubtedly. Was there a personal ego/fame aspect to his leadership of Livestrong Foundation? I wasn’t born yesterday… But his drive and his focus, for which he is being so hypocritically pilloried, was put to great use for great benefit for a large number of people. And I can ask myself those same questions and come up with very similar answers for many positives of what has been done in the world of faith – starting in the Old Testament…

    Where I find myself most disappointed in him is in his treatment of those who spoke out against his claims of never testing positive and never doping. His unwillingness to ‘walk away’, but to attack, to belittle and sue was indicative of what every addict knows: the frantic course of denial before we are confronted with a baseline truth: ‘that our lives had become unmanageable’.

    Christy, I am glad you chose to see his 1st step as something we can all turn inward on instead of, as so many have, casting the stones of the self righteous. Whatever his reasons are for coming forward now, he is beginning to learn the lesson we all need to remember… this journey is not following a script I wrote or can direct… thankfully…

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