Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Psychological Interpretation on the Death of Wes Leonard

Last week, tragedy struck a small town in Michigan when junior Wes Leonard of Fennville High School was touched by the Angel of Death minutes after making the game-winning layup in overtime to secure an undefeated regular season for his team.

His passing is, undoubtedly, an incomprehensible loss. Leonard was the star player on the Fennville Blackhawk's basketball team, and he received a plaque earlier in the year for surpassing 1,000 career points on the varsity level. He also played football at the quarterback position, leading Fennville all the way to a Southwestern Athletic Conference North Division championship with an undefeated league record last fall. Those who knew him well remember the young athlete as a positive individual with a strong Christian faith.

An autopsy confirmed everyone's worst nightmare when it ruled that he died from cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart... but is that all there is to this story?

From a psychological perspective, no it's not. And to best explain this phenomenon, let's turn to the field of existential psychology.


Okay, okay, for those of y'all who don't know what I'm talking about, here's a synopsis on it.

Existential psychology is based on the writings from several philosophers, including Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean-Paul Sartre (among others). Existentialist thinking stresses the idea of existence over essence, which means that the activities people involve themselves in are more important than who they are as an individual. Additionally, everyone has a Dasein (German for being-in-the-world), and their existence is affected by three key areas: umwelt (the environment around us), mitwelt (the relationships with other people), and eigenwelt (the relationship with ourselves). Psychologically healthy people experience all three of these simultaneously. But this also contributes toward contemplating about nonbeing, or nothingness. As it implies, this concept deals with the inevitability of death. For psychologically healthy people, they will acknowledge their own mortality. Those who don't will go through nonbeing in other subtle ways, such as an addiction to alcohol, drugs, or sexually promiscuous behavior. Thus, psychologically healthy people live authentic lives between themselves, others, and the world, coupled with the fact that they'll die one day.

So what does this mean for a 16 year-old star athlete cut down in the prime of his life?

It means that Wes Leonard achieved his destiny, and his death signified that he had fulfilled his purpose on this Earth. In other words, his ultimate goal in life was to score that particular game-winning basket. Everything that influenced him over the years all led up to that moment. Once it happened, he had nothing else to live for, and he died shortly thereafter.

Skeptical? Consider the following:

*He Had a Strong Umwelt. Leonard assimilated into this world with ease. I say this because everyone reacts to their umwelt. This involves meeting biological drives, such as hunger and sleep, and changes in one's environment, from living conditions to the weather. Because I never knew who he was prior to his death, I can't say with assurance how flexible he was. However, I have yet to encounter a story about him relating to juvenile deliquency or deviance from expected social norms. That's not to say he didn't have his own personal struggles to deal with, but that they never inhibited his way of living. His squeaky clean image, more or less, warrants a strong umwelt.

*He Had a Strong Mitwelt. Leonard was remembered by friends and loved ones at his funeral as a fun, pleasurable guy to be around. He was socially active around family, school, and church. But his benevolent personality extended onto the court and gridiron, as well. Opponents that played and coached against him were moved by his grace, sportsmanship, and leadership at such a young age. It's unknown if he had a girlfriend at the time of his death, but having a mature commitment to another individual in a relationship indicates a strong mitwelt, as well. Across multiple settings, his prosocial attitude kept him closely aligned with his mitwelt.

*He Had a Strong Eigenwelt. Leonard knew what he enjoyed doing, and that was to play sports. He wasn't an artist, he wasn't a musician, he wasn't a brainiac (though I'm not implying he wasn't smart). He was an athlete at heart, and he knew it. He performed at the high school level because he loved football and basketball enough to compete with other like-minded individuals. He used his talents to hone his game, in hopes that all his training would pay off and give him the satisfaction of putting forth his best effort in a competitive environment. He played for himself, and that made him one with his eigenwelt.

*He Accepted His Mortality. Leonard had an enlarged heart, so blood would have a hard time being pumped throughout his body, especially in times of high strenuous activity. At age 16, he should've already known about this life-threatening condition through a physician at some point in time. Either because he was never advised to stop playing sports or he did so in spite of his condition, Leonard played out his passion. He could've chosen to never partake in rigorous physical exercise, but he didn't. Like the sun rising in the East and setting in the West, it would surprise me none if he knew so and still threw caution to the wind. That isn't stubbornness, it's courage. And it allowed him to achieve his highest potential.

All this is not meant to suggest that Wes Leonard died strictly because of these circumstances. (His coach mentioned that he recently dealt with flu-like symptoms, and those could've led to further weaken his heart muscle.) Rather, it means that he merely lived out his life doing what he loved to do, and then...

Game over.

Wes Leonard, above smiling, in his final moments alive

Photo courtesy of

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