Summary: The proper response to mourning over the reality of suffering and evil in the world, and the key to meekness, is not conquering desire, but learning to desire the right things.
Are you one of the people who have been following the state of the Bronco cornerbacks’ hamstrings? Both Bailey and Alexander suffered injuries that kept them out of the Jacksonville game and snapped Bailey’s 99 consecutive-game streak, which is the longest in the NFL for a cornerback. However, there is some good news. On yesterday’s sports page, Denver Post Staff Writer Bill Williamson reported that, following a third straight day of practice, coach Mike Shanahan is optimistic that Bailey will play on Sunday against the Washington Redskins. Not so for fellow cornerback Roc Alexander. His hamstring injury is still keeping him out of Sunday’s lineup, and rookie Karl Paymah will probably continue to stand in for him.
Do you plan to watch the Broncos-Redskins game this afternoon? How many of you are rooting for the Broncos? Is there anyone out there who would dare confess to a sneaking fondness for the Redskins? By the end of the day, half of the country will be ecstatic and the other half will be miserable. How long will it take you to get over the disappointment if your team loses? How often will you relive the excitement if your team wins? And yet nothing will have happened that actually matters, in the whole grand scheme of things. Yes, really.
A lot of people - sociologists, psychologists - have speculated on what’s behind this human obsession with sports. Because it’s universal. Virtually every society in the world has some kind of ritualized play in which skills are exercised and winners are rewarded. The most widely accepted explanation is that sports sublimate our instinct for group aggression. It’s a form of tribalism. And tribalism is a way to elevate the self by belonging to a group that has more power - in this context, wins more games - than the other group.
Now in this context it’s relatively harmless, isn’t it. We don’t actively dehumanize or destroy the non-member, the outsider, the less-than-human... And although in recent years we’ve seen some post-game revelries turn into pitched battles, that’s the exception, rather than the rule.
But there is one aspect of competition that is so clear and so obvious that we don’t even think about it... and that is, we don’t think about the pain of the loser. We don’t empathize with them or care about them because, after all, “it’s only a game.” It is sanitized war. We get the pleasure of winning without having to deal with the moral burden of actually hurting someone.
Well, that’s pretty deep for an ordinary Sunday, isn’t it. But it really brings to the fore, doesn’t it, how large a part of our lives is eaten up by competition of one sort or another. And it also shows us that even relatively benign competition means winners and losers, and either giving or receiving pain.
Two weeks ago, when we were looking at the second Beatitude, “blessed are those who mourn,” we pointed out that the Buddha concluded that life consists of suffering, that suffering is caused by loss, and therefore the only solution to suffering is to stop wanting anything so you won’t suffer when you lose it. Well, it certainly works at the sports level. I assure you that I am not going to suffer today no matter who wins, the Broncos or the Redskins. I have managed to conquer desire - in that one arena. But it’s no virtue to give up something you don’t care about. The real test is to let go of something you DO care about. Buddha’s followers spend a great deal of time and effort disciplining themselves to not want anything - to become completely detached. In effect, they are trying to squash, by their own efforts, a very strong and central part of what it means to be a human being. Some succeed. But that’s not the Biblical way of dealing with it.
Last week we were looking at what it means to be meek. We learned that meekness is not the same thing as weakness. To be meek in the Biblical sense is not to squash yourself into a doormat, but to surrender your strengths to God so that he can use them for his purposes.
So how do we put these two concepts together, the reality of suffering and God’s call for meekness, and what does it have to do with sports?
Well, competition involves wanting to prove yourself better than someone else, and leads to loss., that is, suffering for someone. The stronger you are the likelier it is that you will be the winner, and the pain of loss will be born by someone else. And at the same time the stronger you are, the more useful you will be to God - IF you surrender yourself. It’s not a matter of conquering desire - but of allowing God through the Holy Spirit to turn your desires into harmony with his.