January 23

Let’s Just Play

January 23, 2008

Personal Growth

In our society, winning is very important, perhaps of paramount importance. In everyday conversation, we have to win our arguments. When competing for business contracts, we talk about beating our competitors. In sports, winning is everything: we bet on it, we become excited when we win, we become despondent when we lose, we even become triumphant or downcast when our favorite teams — with whom we are only peripherally involved — win or lose.

When we pick up our children from Little League games — when our children are only eight years old, for heaven’s sake — we immediately ask them, “Who won?” In hockey games, when a referee makes a call that might affect a potential win, parents come out of the stands onto the ice to berate — and occasionally physically assault — the poor referee who has volunteered his time for the benefit of the kids. To say that we are obsessed with winning is a bit of an understatement. We’re actually insane in our pursuit of it.

In an effort to win, we’re willing to lie, cheat, belittle our opponents (witness the taunting behavior in the end zone when someone scores a touchdown), trash talk our opponents to the point where we will degrade their mothers, steal signs from the opposing side, and even cause physical injury to the “enemy.” I’ve read at least two stories describing the mothers of high school cheerleaders who plotted the murder of young girls who they thought might interfere with the success of their daughters on the cheering squad. In the absence of Real Love, it’s apparent that the acquisition of power from winning is very, very important.

My son recently attended a church father-son event, in which the fathers and sons were playing tennis together. The goal was to get the fathers and sons bonding together as they cooperated during a shared athletic event. My son watched as one boy approached his father to ask him to come and play tennis with him. At the time, his father was engaged in a match with another man. The father was clearly exasperated that the son would interrupt him while he was engaged in such an important activity, and he said to his son, “We’re in the middle of this game. The score’s close, so I can’t talk to you now. Go away, and I’ll play with you later.”

My son suggested that the boy come with him to play a game, which the boy was eager to do, and they subsequently had a great time together. The boy couldn’t possibly have gotten any message but this: My father cared more about winning his game than he did about me.

Everywhere I look, I see the price of our emphasis on winning. At the end of a college football game, half the people in the stands are cheering and exuberant, not in a loving and charitable way, but in a triumphant, victorious way, as though they had just conquered someone. Through their team, they just experienced a vicarious moment of unhealthy power over the team — and the supporters of that team — they just beat into the ground. If you think I’m exaggerating, look at the other side of the coin. Look at the faces of the fans of the team that just lost. They’re downcast and sometimes even despondent. Some are jeering at the referees because of the injustices they suppose were heaped upon them during the contest just concluded. Athletic events are often less about sports than they are about the acquisition and demonstration of power.

So how could we do this differently?

My six-year-old grandson, Brad, has been raised in an unconditionally loving home where he has little idea what competition even is. Recently he began his first season in organized football, and although I live several hundred miles away, I really enjoyed participating in some of it: purchasing equipment, giving advice to his mother about this and that, attending a practice with him, getting reports after each game, and so on.

After his first game, I called to ask him how the game had gone. He told me that he had thrown the ball up in the air twenty times in a row and then caught it, he had tackled the other team’s quarterback, he had eaten an apple at halftime, he had run all over the field, and he had found a four-leaf clover in the grass. He had enjoyed himself very much. Then I spoke to my daughter, and only then did I discover that Brad’s team had won the game, and Brad had scored the winning touchdown. It turned out that Brad scored touchdowns most of the games of the season, but that meant nothing to him, nor did winning the games. What mattered to him was simply playing the game, running around the field, and playing catch on the non-game days with his father.

In sport, we often speak of the thrill of victory, but for each winner there is always a loser, and in many sports there are many losers. Moreover, the thrill of victory quickly fades, while the enjoyment of just playing — when it’s not tied to winning — can be experienced anytime, anywhere. I submit that we might be wiser to follow the example of six-year-old Brad and just play. It’s more fun. There are never any losers. In fact, when we “just play” everyone cooperates with each other, and in that act alone don’t we all win?

Real Love and Freedom for the Soul

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