Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The American Sports Mentality

(sorry for the length. I need an editor!)

Anyone who knows me knows that I am NOT a sports fan. I think a significant reason for this is that I am not a competitive person by nature. And as far as I can tell, this makes me something of an outsider in America, because Americans love their sports. it is an industry worth billions, and in America's sports obsession, it is an industry that has completely pervaded people's thinking in many other areas of life. Areas that are (in my opinion) suffering severe damage because of it.

The American sports mentality is that desire to take a side, and then beat the other side into defeat. And it doesn't care about the other side's point of view. it just wants to "win". And one of the foundation stones of this mentality is the label. just as sports teams need a name to put on the scoreboard, we feel that the need to label is justified in all areas of life. Religion is one that is affected most by this. and politics. labels are used to define and then dismiss the "opponent". labels like "Christian" and "Secular" or "Protestant" and "Catholic", "Republican / Right-Wing" and "Democrat / Left-Wing", etc... The problem is that, in the case of religion, this mentality mixes with it about as well as oil and water. One of the main foundations of just about every serious religious tradition is Compassion, which is literally "to suffer with". To put oneself in the other's shoes. To do to others as one would have done to oneself. In Christianity, we are commanded to pray for our enemies. not to pray for their defeat, but simply to pray for them. How many sports teams do you think huddle before the game to pray for the other team? Shouldn't that be completely different among religious people in everyday life? and yet how many people approach their religion as though they are on a sports team? Converting someone to the faith is often no more than a draft pick. Church membership is equated with team membership, and so often the drive to "increase church membership" isn't a drive to bring people to faith and encourage them to go to a church of their choosing, it is usually a drive to increase that one particular church's membership numbers.

The same problem pervades politics even more so. We should be working together for the good of our communities and our nation, and instead, most people on both sides of the party divide are more interested in "defeating" the other party - in "winning". But a country does not "win" unless every citizen is a part of that victory. "No Child Left Behind" doesn't work at its root because most people aren't even interested in "No Citizen Left Behind". Both sides vilify the other side, misconstrue what is said by the other because sometimes the other side believes something a little too close for comfort to the same truth that our side believes in, and no fight is very sustainable with the words "I agree", and so what's the fun of that? A foundational part of the game in sports is to tear down the opponent. And so we look for what's wrong in the other, rather than what's right. As David Dark puts it, we don't want to know that a Samaritan would do that sort of thing. And when one side is proven right on any given particular, humility goes out the door. Their "right-ness" gets thrown in the face of the other, as if they somehow just scored against the enemy. "Victory is mine!" as Stewie Griffin would say. And so, instead of an opportunity taken to bring different sides closer together in a common understanding of the Truth that eludes us all to some extent, the walls of defense are put up even stronger and the distance and divide made even greater, lest the other side "score" against us again. People begin to refuse to look at the facts, at the truth as it works itself out, for fear of being made to look like the fool for believing otherwise. This is part of the reason why some people are so stubborn, refusing even to look at obvious facts before them. In the American Sports arena, to admit the other is right in any way is equated with admitting defeat. And so instead of being grateful that the other side is right about something and we can now agree on it and come a little closer together, there is only resentment toward the other for somehow "sneaking one past us". There have been leaders in the past who have accomplished great things because they didn't care who got the credit for being right, but those leaders probably weren't very good at sports, which requires a "keeping score".

Look at the way so many accept the notion of a "war on terror" with a straight face. And they talk about "winning the war" - "we must win the war on terror". How do you win a war against a concept? or against terrorism, which is a tactic? these things will always be there for the using, even if somehow no one on earth were at that moment using them. If a preacher talked about this in the context of "our war is not against flesh and blood", then I might be inclined to listen, but so many in power (and their followers) act as though you can win these "concept" wars with actual bombs lobbed at actual places on earth. But I think it is the framework of sports which people look through and think they see a way to win. and it is usually simple. lob more bombs over there than they lob at us, and we win. Of course one major problem is that War Games tend to go on quite a bit past double overtime.

There are people in my life, close people, whom I never discuss politics with, even when they are begging me to take the bait. Not because I have no interest in discussing politics (I do), but I know from personal and past experience when someone is simply itching for a fight. and I've lost interest in fighting as a substitute for discussion. I see people listening to the talk shows and yelling at the tv or radio, arguing with commentators who cannot and will never hear them, and what they are doing is target practice. they are loading up on "argumentative ammo" for the next straw man who comes along that they can set up to shoot down. And I don't know about you, but I'm not real interested in being shot at. These people right from the start will not listen to what the other person has to say. they don't care. They don't care where you are coming from or why you feel the way you do about any given issue or candidate. they just want to shoot the target, they just want to win the contest. I have certainly been guilty of this on the topic of religion (pick your category), and I realize (even though old habits die hard) that it does nothing but tear others down and close them off to any new way of thinking. I had someone close to me ask who I was voting for, and when I told them, they didn't ask "why do you like that person?", they responded with a disapproving grunt, an "oh no!". and that was that conversation. One of my friends was even told by his own mother that she didn't really like talking to him lately because of who he was supporting. Too often our immediate response to another's opinion is framed in Attack-and-Defense mode, rather than from a place of unthreatened, calm curiosity and compassion. And I think this kind of mentality, this getting wrapped up in the game, in "our side vs their side", makes us lose sight of all kinds of priorities, one of which is to love others. Wayne Dyer once said "When you have the choice between being right and being kind, choose kindness". I think that about sums up why I don't "speak my mind" more often with certain people, because my mind often darkens and hardens my heart.

I suppose I'm perhaps being a little unfair in characterizing this mentality as "American", as it stems I'm sure from our primitive survival instinct, and intense competition is nothing new to humanity. From Cain and Able through the countless wars throughout history, man has been taking sides and trying to destroy those opposed to them. It's the "mob mentality" - don't think it through, don't talk about it, just go out there and defeat the enemy. It's just that, with "civilization" as well as religious conviction, there is supposed to be some sort of transcendence above our baser instincts to "kill or be killed". It is one thing that makes humanity unique and separate from animals, the ability to reason things out and talk them through with each other. And in America especially, the size of the Sports Entertainment Industry being what it is, those baser instincts are played on and encouraged with millions of dollars worth of provocative advertising and media coverage, and the quieter, calmer, more thoughtful inner life is a huge liability to their "success". More money can be made when people are riled up into a frenzied fever-pitch, and nothing does this better than the presentation and caricaturization of an enemy to defeat.

I wonder what would happen if we could somehow eliminate labels from our thinking. We couldn't simply categorize and then dismiss another based on the label we put on them. We would have to listen to what they said about what they believed, and we would be sure to find things we agree with as well as things we disagree with. In religion this happens a great deal. As a Christian, I have met and known many others who also claim to believe in Christianity, only to later learn that we have extremely different views about what that label actually means and implies. But we also have some very similar views in other areas. Being that we both claim the label "Christian", we can't simply dismiss the other based on a label. We have to talk it out and come to either an agreement, or an agreement to disagree. Unless, of course, we resort to "sub-labels" so we don't have to work so hard. labels like Charismatic, Catholic, Protestant, Fundamentalist Wacko, etc...
But if we could be rid of the "win or lose" sports mentality, we could then actually have a constructive conversation with the other. This would mean not only discussing that which we disagree on, actually trying to come to an understanding of the opposing viewpoint, but also a willingness (a desire even) to recognize (or, as David would say, "hell bent on discovering...") where the other is right and where we are wrong. And only after we do this can we talk about where we think we are right and they are wrong. An acceptance of the fact that we each and all together see through the glass darkly and don't understand as we should, and therefore need each other - even and especially the opposing view - to reach more fully toward the truth.

(side note: as if to confirm my assertion as to how pervasive the sports mentality is among us, when I was discussing these thoughts with a friend of mine, he encouraged me to blog about this, saying he thought it was a "slam-dunk argument". He wasn't trying to be funny or make a pun...I don't even think he realized what he had said...)


Anonymous said...

How did I find your blog? I can't remember but I am so glad I did! This is an excellent and though provoking post. I can so relate because I am probably one of the least competitive people on earth (unless playing music trivia games with my sis).

I feel the same way that you do about discussing politics. I also love the quote by Wayne D.

Wow, this whole post is great. Yes, its long but well worth the read:

"As a Christian, I have met and known many others who also claim to believe in Christianity, only to later learn that we have extremely different views about what that label actually means and implies." I had to take the label off and don't know what to call myself anymore.

Brook said...

Thanks for stopping by and reading a couple of my fairly long posts! and thanks for the feedback. I usually feel like maybe 4 people are reading my blog, ever. it's always nice to hear from a new reader.

I like what Kathleen Norris suggested in The Cloister Walk: The early Christians were CALLED Christians, they didn't call themselves this (at least at first). Maybe we should let other people decide whether we are Christians or not and let others call us what they will based on what they see and know of us, and maybe we shouldn't spend any time afixing labels to ourselves. What matters is the path you walk, not the label you create for yourself.