American Culture

Andre Agassi: What a rich man's discontent can teach us all about living an authentic life

They say money can’t buy happiness. The same also goes for celebrity, and even the status that accompanies being among the best in the world at your profession. We’ve had ample demonstration of this in recent days.

Robert Enke, the goaltender for Hannover 96 (who currently hover in the middle of the German Bundesliga standings) and a potential member of next year’s German World Cup team, died the other day. His death was apparently a suicide.

“At 1825 (1725GMT) he was run over by a regional express train running between Hamburg and Bremen,” said police spokesman Stefan Wittke. “The train was travelling at the speed of 160-kph.”The player’s friend and consultant Joerg Neblung told reporters: “I can confirm this is a case of suicide. He took his own life just before six (pm).

Enke lost a child in 2006 and has left behind a wife and eight month-old daughter.

Most Americans have never heard of Enke, but they probably are familiar with Andre Agassi, a former #1 world-ranked tennis player who won eight Grand Slam events (in the process becoming one of only three men in the open era to win all four Slam events during his career). In his new autobiography Agassi describes how he became so despondent at the state of his life – which also included being married to Brooke Shields, one of Hollywood’s legendary beauties – that he turned to crystal meth.

At the core of Agassi’s despair: “I really hated tennis.”

Agassi has given at least a couple of interviews in recent days, including one that some of you may have seen on 60 Minutes (he also talked with Rick Reilly of ESPN). As this Gawker post notes, the Katie Couric conversation had to have been beyond humiliating.

I suppose a lot of us look at men like Agassi and Enke and have a hard time fathoming their discontent. After all, what are the things regular people worry about? Money? Finding love? Recognition, success, professional validation? How many men out there could have looked at Agassi’s life in 1997, when things really bottomed out, and concluded that obscene wealth, tremendous talent, ubiquitous fame, a career where you get paid to play a fucking game and a wife who was one of the most stunningly fabulous women alive … well, that all just seemed a little hollow. What if I inject radiator fluid into my aorta? Maybe that’ll give life some purpose. But as he told Couric, at the time he couldn’t imagine how this drug could make him feel any worse than he already did.

I don’t know a lot about Enke’s life, but on the surface of things it probably looked pretty good compared to what millions of Joe Sixpacks trudge off to every morning. Still, he threw himself in front of a train. And Agassi risked everything for something, anything, that would help him escape a life he hated, no matter how grand it may have looked to the rest of us.

Of course, these two cases are far from perfect parallels. For one, Enke took his own life and Agassi survived. For another, friends and family members say that Enke had long struggled with depression, whereas Agassi’s issues seem less clinical and more bound up with being forced into a career that he hated (Enke reportedly loved soccer). Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger notes that Enke’s struggle was hardly the first of its kind, rattling off a litany of European footballers who, like Enke, couldn’t seem to find happiness in what most would regard as a dream life. The same is certainly true for athletes in all other pro sports – he also points to the case of Boston Red Sox centerfielder Jimmy Piersall, for example, whose “autobiography ‘Fear Strikes Out,’ [was] later made into a Hollywood movie.”

In fact, we might go so far as to argue that these two cases have nothing to do with one another. Perhaps one is a case of clinical illness, pure and simple, while the other speaks more to a cultural pathology surrounding how children are herded into sports (or acting, or when they reach college, medicine, or the law, or accounting, or whatever their parents have decided is best for them). If so, then let’s pause here to simply acknowledge the obvious: fame and wealth don’t make one immune to mental illness.

The Agassi case, though – I have to admit that I was surprised at my reaction. I’m pretty jaded about the world of pro sports and for a long time I wasn’t much of an Agassi fan. And I’ve never had much patience for rich jocks singing pitiful me songs. I know that money doesn’t guarantee happiness, but I’ve always wished for a little more perspective from those who are blessed to be free of the concerns that plague so many of us: Yes, your life isn’t perfect, but my child is sick and we can’t afford health insurance, so would you please have enough self-awareness to go somewhere and shut the fuck up?

Listening to Agassi tell his story, though, I was struck by his honesty, his humility, by his absolute refusal to blame others. More than anything, I was shocked by how very … normal his plight seemed. He clearly is aware of the apparent absurdity, of the contradiction, and he’s embarrassed by it. He’s not asking for sympathy – he’s simply telling a humiliating story because he must. And the result – here’s a rich guy telling a story that we actually can empathize with in a human way that transcends class and circumstance. With Agassi, money can’t buy happiness becomes something more than a cliché that the have-nots use to rationalize their own despair.

Tennis was something that he had been compelled to do because his father (an Iranian immigrant) saw it as a ticket up the ladder, and as a result he liked his job about as much as millions of disenchanted people in the US like theirs. It’s just something they do – each morning they get up and trudge off to serve the necessity of paying the bills.

If I were to sneer at Agassi for being unhappy, what would I do when I realized that my life looks as affluent to billions of people around the world as his does to me? What do I do? I sit in a nice office and write, and meet with people about business issues, and in general get paid well above the national income average to use my brain. I live in a modest house – except that it’s mansion compared to what most people have.

Still, I’ve spent way too many years hating my job the same way Andre hated tennis. A few years back I spent several months working in a position that I loathed. I joke that those nine months probably took five years off my life, except I’m not really joking. After I left, I realized that for the first time in months I could breathe. The stress I had been carrying around was making me physically ill, and even to this day I can hardly think about the experience without feeling a slight surge of anxious adrenaline.

Not long ago I wrote that “reality is making us sick, and fantasy can’t cure us.” In that essay I talked about the book Affluenza, which I’d just completed. Toward the end I said this:

So here’s my theory/hypothesis/question. We’re a hollow nation, a society that provides nearly all of us with rampant access to more material goods than we know what to do with. But we cannot find happiness in the material because there is not happiness in it. On the contrary – it’s a system that’s rigged to feed us a shiny, pretty lie that hollows us out some more, all the while whispering that only more of the lie will make us happy.

Is this something like the lie that drove Andre Agassi’s father to enslave his son to tennis? Is it like the lies of so many people I’ve known in my life who wanted to teach, perhaps, but did the “sensible” thing and became accountants? Or the lies that led how many of my classmates to become lawyers or doctors or MBAs because that’s what their fathers had been?

I have multiple sig files that turn up at the bottom of the e-mails I send out. One of my favorites – it has probably appeared in more than 100,000 of my e-mails through the years, and maybe more – is a quote from Joseph Campbell. It goes like this:

You may have success in life, but then just think of it – what kind of life was it? What good was it – you’ve never done the thing you wanted to do in all your life. I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don’t let anyone throw you off.

Campbell is talking about living an authentic life, and I’m glad to see that Andre Agassi is, finally, doing just that. Or so it seems, from watching an exposé on television.

Like many of my fellow citizens, it’s probably safe to say that I am not living an authentic life. Not yet. When I get up in the morning there are things I want to do, things that would make me far happier, but I don’t do them. My discontent hasn’t led me to crystal meth, nor is it going to, but it does lead me to thinking about a day several years ago when I stood in l’Accademia in Florence overawed by The David. I’ve never shaken the sense that, among other things, Michaelangelo was making a point about living an authentic life. David is staring off in the distance, sizing up the Goliath of his age, and he is not afraid. He does not hate the life he is living. He does not hate the moment he is in. In fact, he seems to be looking forward to the battle in front of him.

He seems possessed by a calm resolve, by that feeling that Campbell is talking about and the confidence that comes with knowing that he will not thrown off of it.

Agassi’s Wikipedia entry notes that “he is the founder of the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, which has raised over $60 million for at-risk children in Southern Nevada. In 2001, the Foundation opened the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas, a K-12 public charter school for at-risk children.” Wow – a dropout investing a medium-sized fortune in helping poor kids get an education.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere, and it’s too complex to trivialize it by tying it up into a neat platitude. At the core, though, lies the need to examine the relationship between our humanity and the material world that so often eats away at it.

I’m grateful to Andre Agassi for telling his story. I hope we can all learn from it, even if the story itself strikes us as so very unlikely…

Image Credits: The Brisbane Times, and EagleVision Productions.

9 replies »

  1. Thanks for opening up about this, Sam. Then there are those of us who work at nondescript jobs, which at least don’t eat our souls. We make what we can of our off-hours.

    About Agassi, I was always a big fan of his precisely because of how genuine he came across when interviewed. Just about the most human athlete around. A real class act.

  2. What I’m finding irksome is not Agassi’s honesty and openness in his new autobiography. What I’m finding irksome is the reaction of much of the sports community – and the tennis community in particular – that Agassi in admitting his recreational drug abuse has somehow forfeited his place in tennis – hell, in sports – history.

    I met Andre back in 1988 – just before he exploded on the international tennis scene. We talked about 20 minutes and I found him a sweet, unassuming kid who seemed to be playing tennis because it was all he knew. I didn’t think anything of it at the time.

    I’ve thought a lot about it this past week….

  3. Uh-huh. While I certainly don’t advise or condone the use of crystal meth, I think asshats like Marat Safin (I believe he was the one yapping) need to take a moment to understand the distinction between a performance enhancing drug and a performance DEhancing drug.

  4. Yeah, as if meth is going to help you do anything except suck gas out of other people’s tanks through a hose or beat up old ladies for their bingo money.

    I’m of the opinion that you can tell a lot about a person by their drug of choice. And while i’m not much for the “poor, filthy stinking rich me” routine, this case has a lot to say. Here’s a guy who could have well afforded an honest coke habit, yet he chose meth…that says “search for absolute self destruction” to me.

  5. Interesting, and provokes a torrent of thoughts.

    One of which is I was always amazed at all the young dotcommers who told me they intended to get rich so they could “retire by 30 and do something with my life.” My question then (and now as I approach retirement) is always, “Do what?’ You have to get up every day and do something. I dont believe human beings are genetically designed to just get up, loaf, and go to bed. So what do you want to do? None ever really had an answer, just a charming insistence that there was something out there that would make them happy and they would find it.

    So Agassi did not want to play tennis. I get it. And maybe he really did hate it. So then what would have made him happy? There are jobs out there that truly, truly suck–I’ve had them–and they can clearly make you miserable, but in Agassi’s case, I am not sure his job had much to do with his unhappiness. I agree that he seems a nice, honest and disarmingly sincere man who realizes the potential offensiveness of what he’s saying to an average joe and neatly steers around it, but I am not sure he’s really nailed the source of his unhappiness.

  6. Yes. All in all, he seems like a good guy. And I am not really sure that most sports heroes are. With Jax, AI, and Delonte West in the news today, it reminds me that something about the role of sports god seems to either attract jerks or bring out the inner jerk in presumably decent people. Agassi could have turned out much, much worse. As it is, at worst he gave himself a harder time than he needed to, but at least he hasn’t tried to shoot anyone that we know of.