This past winter our family went to a college hockey game. It was a blast. Lots of noise, crazy cheering, some unsportsmanlike booing, and a lot of social chatter. And, we got to watch twelve hockey players perform their always (to me) stunning combination of grace, speed, synergy, and tussle. One of the players’ mothers is a friend of mine, so we even had a team to root for.
I’ve loved sports all my life. In fact when Covid first hit in March 2020, it did not register with me until I heard that the University of Minnesota had canceled its entire spring sports season. My jaw dropped and I actually felt shaky. For the first time I imagined the immensity of a problem that would generate this level of response. But even aside from that: how could we possibly live without sports? Our neighbor Jessie, who became a pride of the town placing first as a national discus thrower, never got to throw the disc her crowning senior year.
Just like in theater, where we happily “suspend our disbelief” that the world being acted out in front of us is real, in sports we temporarily and eagerly engage ourselves in the belief that it DOES matter who wins. And how thrilling that is for those of us with that competitive gene.
We know there are competitions in the spiritual world, and sometimes I think what I see here begins to mirror those events. With daughters who run and ski, we have become fixtures at cross country, nordic ski, and track meets. It’s amazing to watch runners mutually improve as they pit themselves against each other in practice, rising and rising to new heights of strength and endurance as they prepare to face the opponents from other teams. Around here, when two runners sprint for the finish line and cross close together they never check the scoreboard first. It’s the parents who try to figure out who won; the athletes simply embrace.
Our daughters are highly competitive runners. They have experienced success and failure, felt elation and disappointment, and worked to exhaustion. All of which is why sports builds character.
I’ve wondered, though, about the effect sports has on parents. Sports seem to showcase parents at their worst! If their children do well, they can be puffed with barely concealed pride, or even conceit. If they fail, parents can be crushed–or worse, miffed, at the athlete, the ref, the coach, or even the weather.
But surely cheering for your kids isn’t all bad! There is also a simple love of children in there. When I glance behind me in the stands at the spectators, I can tell which children are running by their parents’ eyes. It’s clear that their love, their hopes, their dreams, are tied up in this race, for better or for worse.
I think it’s important for parents of athletes to continually check themselves. Competition handily engages our propriums, our love of ourselves. There is no guarantee that sports will be used for good. Sports is like politics–very tied up in power. It’s so easy to slip into some hellish thinking, feeling, and even acting out of pride, humiliation, or self-righteousness.
Yet it is so much fun to cheer for our kids! And to be happy when they win in small and big ways, and disappointed when they lose or fall short of hopes and expectations.
At the end of Heaven and Hell there is a section on equilibrium. Everything needs resistance. Every heavenly society has a corresponding hellish society. I don’t get all this, and I’m not suggesting that one team is “heavenly” while the other is “hellish” in real life. But I wonder if engaging in this way, whether actually or in spirit (from the stands), is satisfying something that Swedenborg is talking about. Overcoming evil is something we all need to do, sometimes against seemingly terrible odds. And without resistance, there is no victory. Without someone to compete against, sports are no fun at all.
The best analogy I ever heard for the necessity for us to be left in freedom as a law of Divine Providence came from Curtis Childs on “Off the Left Eye.” “It’s like this,” he said (to my memory). “Imagine that you play a great baseball game, and you win, and it’s a hard won game. Then after the game, you learn that your grandparents in the stands had paid off the competition. The whole thing was a charade. Wouldn’t you rather have played the game, for real? We all want to be in the real game. We want the freedom to be living our lives, to be choosing the good. Having the choices made for us saps our life away.”