Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sports and Life

In the 50s every red-blooded American boy either wanted to play baseball or be Elvis Presley.
Bob Dylan, “Theme Time Radio Hour: Baseball”

I was not a red-blooded American boy in the 50s, living only six months of my life in that decade. Yet Dylan’s words ring pretty true, with some modification for red-blooded American boys in the 1960s, too. When I was a boy, I dreamed of playing baseball for a living. I was a little older before the rock star dream hit. I have deep and fond memories of heading to the drug store with a dollar in hand to buy baseball cards – ten cents a pack. I can almost smell the gum and vividly recall how hard it was in those packages. It sweetness lasted such a short time.
I still enjoy sports, though my own accomplishments have always been pretty limited. I was a Little League sub. I have been a decent slow-pitch softball player. I enjoyed neighborhood pick-up games as a boy. I swam in high school and contributed something to the team. My golf game has a few moments of brilliance surrounded by a lot of hacking around.
When I was a boy, I developed a love for reading and much of that reading was sports books. These were frequently brief, sanitized biographies of star professional athletes. I still enjoy reading about sports, especially baseball. It is a nice change of pace, and I recently finished Phil Pepe’s 1961, the story of Mantle and Maris’ pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. Reading it I recalled another of Phil Pepe’s books I read, this one as a boy (and I still have somewhere in a box in the garage,) Winners Never Quit. While the title came from an aphorism: “Quitters never win, winners never quit,” the book was more nuanced and deeper than the usual fair of boyhood sports books. The stories were about athletes who kept going, despite hardships – Jackie Robinson, Ken Venturi, Johnny Unitas. Most succeeded in their sport. However, one story from the book that I recall was about Herb Score, a talented pitcher whose career was cut short when a batted ball struck his face while he pitched a game. He never recovered his best stuff. He had to be a “winner” in some other way.
There are life lessons that sports can teach, lessons about determination, courage and a love for something bigger (“the game”). This summer, however, I have grown increasingly concerned about the “sportification” of our national life, especially our politics. As we are mired in partisan gridlock, so much of the analysis I hear uses sports metaphors to ask about who is ahead, who has the advantage – as if every policy discussion were simply an election strategy, and elections are just about winners and losers. Quitters never win gets bastardized into “no compromise.”
Sports can teach us things about life, but sometimes the metaphors are too narrow, or perhaps we have only borrowed too narrowly from sports. Another way to think about what is happening is to postulate that what we have forgotten is that sense of something bigger (“the game”). Maybe in our politics we call that the common good. If we “win,” but our winning damages the game, no one wins. The story of Roger Maris is still interesting because all those who have since broken Maris’ record have had their careers tainted by baseball’s steroid scandal. Their victories are more hollow for it.
I usually read sports books as a nice diversion from other things, yet sometimes the lessons spill over. Without “sportsmanship” sports lose their meaning. Without a broader context of cooperation, competition ends up in a Hobbesian war of all against all.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Deep Self Help

Ever since reading Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death in 2008 I have found myself exploring some of the literature of contemporary psychoanalysis. Majoring in psychology, I was acquainted with Freud. I read some Jung in college as well. At that time my psychological “mentor,” so to speak, was Abraham Maslow whose ideas I found fascinating and whose intellectual generosity I found admirable. In seminary, I appreciated how some theologians and ethicists took psychology seriously – Paul Tillich, Donald Evans, and others. Over the years I would find time to do some reading in psychology and pick up the occasional “self-help” book. Some of that literature is helpful at some level, though it often lacks a certain depth.
Becker’s book is not self-help literature. It is a probing, intellectually rich, psychologically deep exploration of the human condition, of the human confronting the fact that she or he dies and knows it. Becker drew deeply from the literature of psychoanalysis, and I began coming across other references to psychoanalysis since Freud and Jung. So I have read some D. W. Winnicott, Adam Phillips, Michael Eigen, Stephen Mitchell, Roy Schaefer, Harry Guntrip, Robert Stolorow. Much of the writing is stimulating, sometimes a little dense, often insightful. Most of it would not fit into the category of self-help literature, as we usually define it.
Yet one psychoanalyst I have discovered published a “self-help” book, or at least a book that would probably be shelved with self-help literature. Charles Spezzano has published work on the place of affect in psychoanalysis. He has edited a volume on spirituality, religion and psychoanalysis. He also published a “self-help” book – What To Do Between Birth and Death: the art of growing up. While it may be something on the order of a self-help book, its insights penetrate more deeply. Here are a few:

All significant life choices mean you get something and you give something up.

The one thing we all must do to find peace with a place, or a man or a woman, is be willing to surrender opportunities and pleasures we once rated highly and accept some constraints and limitations we once thought intolerable.

Much self-help literature never acknowledges such choices and limits. Here are a few more insights offered:

Talk is not useful just because it is deep…. The evidence that deep talk has been useful is not that you feel relieved but that your subsequent interactions with the other person are better, smoother, more productive, better coordinated.

Habits form and stick even when they are maladaptive and life-robbing.

Adulthood is… essentially the business… of the unavoidable.

As a theologian and person of faith I am sometimes confronted by those who argue that the language of psychology is not a good fit with the language of faith. I disagree. There may be times when the language conflicts, but at its best, psychology, spirituality, theology and ethics offer mutually illuminating insights into human life. I agree with Spezzano, when he writes in another book that “discourses about the soul and the discourses of the couch, could inform, and not simply argue with or ignore one another” (Soul on the Couch).
I am grateful for this on-going conversation in my life between theology, ethics and psychoanalysis. It continues to enrich my mind and shape my soul. I am grateful for this inner dialogue, even when it comes from a “self-help” book.

With Faith and With Feathers,


P.S. Economy 3:Today’s (July 3) Duluth News Tribune published an Associated Press article about the economic recovery. Here are some of the facts cited. Worker’s wages and benefits make up 57.5% of the economy, an all-time low (the stable figure into the mid-2000s was 64%). “A big chunk of the economy’s gains has gone to investors in the form of higher corporate profits.” Corporate profits are up; CEO salaries are up significantly; while the average worker’s wages after accounting for inflation were 1.6% lower in May this year than last year. Gains in the stock market “go disproportionately to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans who own more than 80 percent of outstanding stock.” From a moral point of view, a strong economy is one which creates wealth and creates opportunity for ordinary persons who work hard to earn a decent living – enough to afford basic necessities, an education for children, health care. I have no problem with wealth being concentrated as long as the economy is working for ordinary persons. I simply wonder how well is it doing this?