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Simone Biles Can Fly, But She's So Much More Than Her Wings06:13
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Simone Biles competes during the gymnastics world championships on October 8, 2019 in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Stuttgart, Germany. (Tom Weller/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Simone Biles competes during the gymnastics world championships on October 8, 2019 in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Stuttgart, Germany. (Tom Weller/picture alliance via Getty Images)

On the first day of any beginner-level nonfiction writing class, you will likely be faced with the age-old prompt: Why do you write?

I honestly find the question to be tiresome. Although, I suppose, I understand its intent.

I used to manage the donor database for a Boston-area nonprofit. Since I have also previously been the manager of a homeless shelter, a Peace Corps volunteer and a trauma responsive yoga teacher, I was regularly asked why I would want to do such a "boring" job. I found myself wondering the same of our finance department accountant. I wonder the same about my dentist, my gynecologist, and the lady who works at my neighborhood bakery.

Why do any of us do what we do?

"This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself," Simone Biles said, in the now famous press conference with the U.S. women’s gymnastics team where she discussed why, mid-competition, she decided to not compete further in Tokyo.

And isn't that what we're all supposed to say? I write for myself. I dance for myself. I make the music that I want to hear; I'm just hashtag-blessed that anyone else cares to take a listen. From actors to slam poets to gymnasts — anyone who performs knows that what we are supposed to say is that we do it for ourselves. And the reason we are supposed to say this is because, usually, it's the truth.

It is hard for me to articulate what it's like for me to witness another Black woman caring for herself in this way.

But that’s not the whole truth. The rest of the truth is that I like getting published. I like being on stage. I thrive on an audience. If I were a singer, I would want to hear people singing my songs. As a writer, I want people to read my words. As a storyteller, I want people to listen.

The athletes at the 2021 games in Tokyo are being asked to give the performances of their lifetimes to an invisible audience. To sing in an otherwise silent room. When you take away the clamor of the crowd; when you take away the embrace of your loved ones after you perform your heart out: what's left is You. So, what happens when you don't want to do it? When your heart isn’t in it? When your body tells you to take a break?

"I came in and felt like I was still doing it for other people. That just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people," Biles went on to say. "It's been really stressful, this Olympic games. I think just as a whole not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it.

On Sunday, July 25, the most decorated gymnast of all time, a 24- year-old Black American woman, decided to allow herself to rest. She withdrew from the team finals, and days later announced she would not compete in the individual finals, either. It is hard for me to articulate what it's like for me to witness another Black woman caring for herself in this way.

I am constantly reminding myself that I don't have anything to prove. Neither do you. And neither does Simone.

In my life as a writer, people are constantly telling me to "Strike while the iron is hot.” Send out that essay. Pitch that agent. Call that editor. But, what if there is no iron? What if there is no heat that will eventually go cold? What if, as Hoda Kotb told Biles during their "Today Show" interview, everyone is still gonna love me even if doing what I want — what I need — goes against what they expect of me?

Years ago I met a man who’d recently retired from his decades-long career as a chef. For the first two weeks after his last day at work, he hardly got out of bed. “I didn’t have anywhere to go,” he told me, “I didn’t know who I was without my work.” It’s a lesson I’ve reminded myself of often in the time since: to regard myself as a human first, what I do second. But it’s not easy. I am young, gifted and Black. And the pressure put on me as a result is, at times, crippling. Paralyzing. Couch-day inducing. But what Biles has given me echos India.Arie’s refrain: “I am not my hair; I am not this skin; I am not your expectations. No.

“The outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before,” Biles tweeted Wednesday night. What a gift to know that even a woman who can fly needs to hear that she is more than her wings.

I'm no athlete, no Olympian. I'm not the GOAT of anything. But, I am a human being in the everyday struggle of radical self acceptance. Radical self listening. Radical self care. I am constantly reminding myself that I don't have anything to prove. Neither do you. And neither does Simone. The only thing we need to do is to figure out why we are doing what we do.

And at the center of that, I hope what you find is yourself.

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Theresa Okokon Cognoscenti contributor
Theresa Okokon is a nonprofit professional, a writer, storyteller and the cohost of "Stories from the Stage."

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