Monday night, in a late-season game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals, Damar Hamlin took a hit on a tackle, shook himself, stood up, and collapsed. Cardiac arrest, we found out about 12 hours later. The game was suspended, and so was football. All the stupefied reporters and squirmy official commentators would talk about was Hamlin and his status. Which grew very repetitive, because they simply didn’t know. But obviously, they felt it would be crass to talk about the season, or the playoffs, or anything else, until we knew he was okay.
There was no moving forward—until we knew. And then I heard it explained perfectly, this afternoon on TV. The speaker, an ex-coach, said that we’re used to getting that thumbs up from the player as he’s carted off the field. A thumbs up, which is not just a signal that, “Yeah, it looked bad, but I’m up now and getting treatment.” It’s an acknowledgment to the fans in the stands that they are now allowed to exhale and transfer their empathy for the injured player back into their passion for the game.
Other commentators said, “This isn’t about football. This is about life.” Until we know…
Well, it’s been two days, and we don’t know yet if he’s really okay. And we might not know still for days. Because maybe, just maybe, he’s not okay. And that’s life. This was a different kind of injury, and it’s playing out more like medical traumas play out in our normal, non-NFL lives. A lot of times, we just don’t know:
When a dog has cancer but doesn’t show it yet, and we just don’t know when it’s going to get bad. So we play with her as we always did, and think about a year in our lives equaling seven in a dog’s, and try not to feel the lump in our throats.
When a child has a serious condition that must be remedied immediately, and we don’t know if we’ll be able to go on if they don’t.
When we get a life-altering diagnosis ourselves, and we don’t know how on earth we’re going to tell the ones we love. But we pick up the phone and call anyway, and bring them into a widening circle of people who don’t know what to do next, whether to go back to eating dinner or sitting down for a good cry.
When we injure ourselves doing something we always do, and we don’t know if we’ll ever get back to doing that thing again. We deny, resist, and feel sorry for ourselves through the worst of it. Then, most of us, still not knowing, settle in, let our bodies heal, say our prayers, do our work, and hope that maybe, just maybe, we’ll be one of the lucky ones who isn’t disabled forever.
When we feel extreme pain, or threatening cold, or pure terror, and we don’t know if we are strong enough to get to the other side of it. And our only choice is to not know and just numb ourselves, that part of us that feels entitled to comfort all the time, for as long as it takes.
When an aging father is receiving special care, and we don’t know whether he will linger for weeks or just one more day. But we still call him and go to his room, day after day, with a smile on our faces and cheerful news on our tongues, because that’s what he taught us to do.
Don’t get me wrong. When I first saw Damar collapse on the field, I was riveted, sickened, and horrified like everyone else. I was pained to see the big men wipe their hands across their faces in confusion and cry. I feel for his family and others close to him, who may feel they can’t know anything for sure for a long time. For them, for his teammates, his fans, the broadcasters, the NFL, and all the us who watched in horror, I fervently wish that Damar had been able to give his thumbs up.
But in life, we shouldn’t expect it to be the thing that helps us get moving again. Because life is not a football game. If you must have a football analogy, not knowing is a skill drill we are put through to build our patience, our character, our faith, and our humanity.
Life is not a clock that runs out right when we have predetermined that it will. It’s not about winning or even moving on to the next play as if nothing ever happened. Life, lived to its fullest and longest, is as much about not knowing as it is about knowing.
Will my children outlive me?
Will I be comfortable in old age?
When and how will I die?
Why are we even here?
Sometimes we just don’t know. Some things, we just can’t know.
And learning to deal with not knowing, with grace and humility, is what makes a real champion.