• Tihana Stojsavljevic

Defining My Purpose

Around 300 BC, in the city of Cyprus, there was an incredibly wealthy trader named Zeno. One day he traveled by ship with all of the wealth he possessed. During his voyage, Zeno’s ship sank along with all his cargo. This event was completely out of Zeno’s control, yet it made an instant, dramatic impact on both his life and those around him.

What would you do if you were in Zeno’s position? How would you react if your entire life’s worth was destroyed without hope of recovery? How would you deal with this unplanned force of Nature?

Zeno responded by becoming the father of stoicism, describing how one small change can last an eternity, and one small effort to reframe your mindset can cascade into larger and more impactful changes later in life. One of the quotes I could easily relate to is the one where he reminds us that “we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

The philosophy of stoicism — the endurance of pain or hardship without complaint — is integral to my story.

Once I committed to writing my story for UNCUT, I was not aware of how much digging I would have to do in order to write my story. To be honest, I am still not sure this is exactly right, but I am a step closer to my truth than I was a year ago.

In December of 2019, I graduated in only three and a half years from Texas Tech University. This was difficult because I was an international student, with no transferable high school credits. I received both President’s and Dean’s honors, was a full-time student-athlete, and was a member of Texas Tech’s Model United Nations student group. With a change in my coaching staff, I decided to transfer as a graduate student. After an official visit to UVA, I knew this was going to be my new home.

In January of 2020, I was cleared to play for UVA and was ready to start my first semester at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. For those who are not familiar with Batten, it is a prestigious program that focuses on Public Policy and Leadership from an American perspective. In my head, Batten was the ticket to achieving my dream profession- becoming a diplomat. To get admitted to Batten, I cried, stressed, and poured my heart into the multitude of steps that were required of me.

After hearing that I was admitted, I was over the moon; however, I felt immense pressure to prove I was worthy of being accepted. I took the challenge and I told myself that I would be an extremely dedicated student, and succeed no matter what obstacles were thrown my way.

(Photo via UNCUT Photographer, Tony Davis)

As I mentioned above, during my career at Texas Tech, I was part of the Model United Nations student delegation, where I had the opportunity to travel to a conference in Washington D.C. representing the Republic of Chile. After many tries, we were able to get in contact with the Croatian embassy and set up a meeting. The entire student delegation was able to visit the Croatian embassy in Washington D.C. At the end of the meeting, I was offered an internship with the embassy for the upcoming Summer.

Unfortunately, the Spring season did not go exactly as expected: COVID-19 erupted, I suffered a season-ending concussion and lost my grandmother to cancer. Determined to push through these hardships, I chose not to go home during the summer of 2020. Instead, I took summer classes, completed my internship remotely, and prepared for the upcoming season.

Once school started again, I was on a mission to be in great shape and help my team win at all costs. More importantly, I wanted to make my grandma proud. Unfortunately, I faced another obstacle during the first game of our season. While aggressively hedging a player on defense, my left knee snapped. I refused to believe the worst, so I continued to run until my knee gave out. Surrounded by the coaching staff and teammates, I met with the doctor, fully expecting to hear that I could practice tomorrow. However, the physician confirmed a partial ACL tear. That was the first time in my life that I heard white noise. Everything around me became silent, but the noise in my head was like a boiling kettle on a stove.

I came home that day, and could not comprehend what just happened. I had given up so much, especially that year. I had sacrificed seeing my grandma in her last days to instead chase my dreams of playing ACC basketball. How selfish was I?

After surgery, I had to re-learn how to walk and bend and straighten my leg. Being an athlete most of my life, this was the first time my leg looked like a noodle with no muscle or strength. I cried a lot, was constantly asking for advice, and felt lost trying to find my purpose. It was as though I was being consumed by the dark.

One day I decided I couldn’t go on like that anymore, so I turned to art, my escape from reality. I had always loved painting since my early childhood, and I often used art when I felt lost, like during quarantine or when I found out I would lose my grandma. I bought four, six-foot-tall canvases and would spend many days outside of rehab sitting on the floor with a pillow under my knee, painting.

I made the decision that my injury was not going to be the end of me, but instead, I would use it as motivation to come back a better, stronger person all around. I significantly improved my nutrition, met with a sports psychologist, journaled, and set even higher goals for myself. I applied for a summer internship for the Permanent Mission of Croatia to the United Nations in New York, and after months of not hearing back, I received a phone call offering me the position. After confirming with my coach, I was allowed to go to New York where I would complete my internship and do rehab in the local gym.

My United Nations experience was a dream. I would wake up at 5 am and go to the gym with two bags: my UVA athletics backpack and my black leather tote bag. I would complete my entire rehab, shower, put my makeup and suit on, and then head to Manhattan. At 9 am I would attend a meeting with the brightest minds of the country. I learned more from them than I ever have in my life. They were humble, funny, hard-working, and dedicated to public service. Once my clearance was approved, I attended my first conference with the United Nations. I was sitting in the same chair that every Croatian diplomat had sat before me. Eventually, I even wrote a report for the entire Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with my name on it. How humbling was that?

Yet, my imposter syndrome was burning every time I had to scan my badge to get inside. I couldn’t help but wonder, did I deserve this? Did I belong?

(Photo via Instagram: @tihana.stojsavljevic)

I would walk the streets of Manhattan in my blue suit, with my UN accreditation around my neck with all the other lawyers and diplomats entering the UN. My reality, however, was very different from theirs.

My colleagues assumed that I was a regular, healthy student-athlete ready to compete. No one knew I was doing rehab every morning, and that the scar on my knee hurt every time I sat down.

But there I was, stepping towards my goal of becoming a diplomat while overcoming a major injury at the same time.

Once I came back to Charlottesville, I was getting ready for the season with my team. I ran sprints, lifted weights and I was gradually getting back into basketball. Slowly, I came back as if nothing happened. I had no time for anything but recovery during the day and schoolwork during the night. I played in my first game and tried not to show any fear as I posted up in the first possession. That little action, after months of recovery, made me so proud. I still could still play the game of Basketball! I was back!

The second game was at JPJ, home, and I felt amazing. I was ready to show the world what I was capable of. I came in and played incredible defense on a player that dunks, and then I scored for the first lead of the game. In the next possession, I went to block another shot. Yet as she released, her knee knocked into mine. My ACL popped again, this time in the other leg. I knew exactly what happened at that moment.

Later, the doctor confirmed an ACL tear. I laughed because it confirmed what I already knew. I laughed because the irony of this happening to me again was far too much. There was no more emotion in me. I had no more fight. Everything was just gray, and I could not comprehend getting through this again.

The fight, motivation, and desire to come back better than ever disappeared. I was simply going through the motions, not wanting to show how broken I felt. People around me tried to cheer me up, and I would smile for them, but deep inside everything looked like a desert.

I was not able to do my schoolwork, I lost my appetite, and then I started overeating. I was late with my assignment submissions, and I wanted to quit everything. Sleep was a luxury I could not afford because my mind was constantly racing. I prayed, met with a sports psychologist, and spoke to my family, but there was nothing that was giving me joy or peace. I was just existing, I was just – there.

(Photo via Instagram: @uvawomenshoops)

I went through the surgery again and I went through the first phases of rehab again. This time around I was not afraid of anything. The hardest part was being around my team and only being able to watch. It was killing me. I was supposed to be there, playing, and yet there I was, starting from zero yet again. It made me mad. They had no idea how lucky they were to be out there. I tried to be positive around my team, but at the same time, I was embarrassed about my body, of my scars. I felt like I was a weak, worthless being.

Today, months after surgery, I just started running again. I crushed my first leap test, and I feel a million times better compared to the first comeback. However, I am still struggling with an image of myself as a student-athlete. On my senior night I received flowers in my sweats, instead of my jersey. I felt as if I cheated the process of getting the scholarship for sports because I was injured most of the time.

Yet, for the first time in my life, I decided to see myself as something other than just an athlete.

I became more engaged with my friends outside of sports, who I was able to connect with in different ways than my teammates. I started learning a new language, French, the language of diplomacy. I paint more often than ever.

According to Zeno, we do not have much control over what happens to us, but we do have control over how it affects us. Rather than crying over his lost wealth, Zeno kept his composure over the situation, remaining calm and neutral despite his predicament. In modern society, stoics are viewed as people who cannot be broken. Those who don’t often linger in emotional extremes. Stoicism is a way to view the world and an opportunity to challenge one’s perspective. Stoicism is about practicing what you preach, which ultimately made me challenge my behavior and negative thoughts.

Similar to how we cannot control the weather if we are not a fan of rain, we can put on a raincoat and take an umbrella until it passes. Bad things will happen, but we have to learn how to be content when life presents us with obstacles and challenges. “Voluntary discomfort” is an exercise designed to increase gratitude and help us realize that no matter how hard life gets, we can still thrive if we have the right mindset. By being able to withstand these uncomfortable situations we can prepare our mind for future misfortunes.

We are made to believe that we will never be happy if we don’t have a certain amount of money, or if we don’t look a certain way, or achieve a certain type of success. Personally, I used to measure my success, worth, and happiness through basketball — until it was taken away from me twice. If I continued measuring my worth through basketball, I would be setting myself unrealistic expectations, and continue sinking every time I face an obstacle. A pandemic like COVID erases so many lives without a warning, a natural disaster destroys cities and countries, and unexpected events change the status quo every day. Therefore, we have to place our value as humans on our internal strength. According to stoicism, humans are driven by a purpose, meaning that we can fill our lives with happiness and meaning by simply finding that purpose.

I am still on the path to find my purpose, but these injuries and obstacles helped me open my eyes and see that my truth is still yet to be discovered.

Basketball was a tool to unlock other crucial pieces of my life, such as serving people through diplomacy and expressing myself through art.

Therefore, despite the obstacles, I decided to pursue my passion for basketball, and play professionally in Europe. While doing so, I will keep my mind and heart open to new ways of growth and development outside of this sport. Even though I decided to continue playing, I will not let it consume my sense of self. Whether I achieve great accomplishments or not, my value will not be determined by sports, but by serving others and bringing value to the lives of other people.