There is a great verse in the early chapters of The Gospel of Mark where Jesus says to his disciples, ‘don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?”
The world is full of parables. We live amongst an abundance of metaphors. They are not just “the way things are”, they are explaining the way things are. The metaphors we encounter are insights into who we are as humans and how we function.
Sometimes the metaphor is easier to see than others. All parables are complex and, perhaps, imperfect.
Much to my wife’s chagrin, we are in a particular stretch on the calendar. A sports jubilee. Three of my favorite sports, two of them in the postseason, are all going on right now, weaving through one another into my day.
Why do we love sports? What is it about sports that is so intriguing, even meaningful, to us?
I think the best thing about sports is its cold, hard reality. You play for a couple of hours and you win or you lose. It’s easier, cleaner, than the complicated metrics we try to use in most endeavors. Am I a good husband? A good father? A good employee or boss?
Winning is clear and everyone gets behind it. That clarity of desire and the simple reality of achievement or failure makes sports a metaphor that hits something at our core. The desire for surety. Clarity.
There are all sorts of controversies and second-guessing: did a referee blow a call? Should the coach have done something different? But, with very few exceptions, these are peripheral to the reality of win and loss. In the real world, our peripheral, biased argumentation shapes our reality. It changes things to a greater degree. Which is what we are trying to do (many fans would love to do it with sports too). The problem is those pesky others, the billions of souls trying to change the parameters to fit their own desired outcomes.
When it comes to sports, you can complain and make excuses and blame referees all you want, but at the end of the day there is cold hard evidence that one team (and/or person) has achieved over and against the others.
We often talk about sports in our training with The Crossroad and when we do, we say that another reason people connect with sports is because the desired outcome is clear. Win. Everyone is trying to win. It is, undoubtedly, what it is all about.
But I am starting to think, more like real life, the vision of sports is more complicated than first glance suggests.
Sure everyone wants to win, but winning is a strategy, not a mission. Why do we want to win?
There is often this tension in sports between winning and having fun. My most competitive friends are quick to point out that winning is more fun, so if joy is the true mission, winning is a reasonable strategy towards it. I am becoming more and more convinced this is true. Winning is actually the strategy. The goal is joy.
But of course the tension comes when we swap the strategy for the mission. Money or winning or any number of things become the true end of participants hearts (fans, players, and management alike) and that can easily sap the joy out of the game.
We come to sports for a straightforward example of THERE-HERE-PATH. It is fun because it includes exercise, back story, risk and reward. It is a metaphor for how to succeed, how to truly live – overcome adversity, communicate with others, manage emotions and abilities properly.
And, let’s be honest, it is really and truly pretty low stakes. Nobody’s life is on the line in a sporting event. It doesn’t matter if your team wins and loses. It sure doesn’t feel that way, but that is the truth. We pervert sports when we make it more high stakes than it is, when we shuffle it out of the metaphor column and into the this-is-what-life-is-all-about column.
But there is a way to enjoy sports and many do it well. People missed sports during lockdown not just because they needed a distraction but because it is a communal metaphor for what meaningful living can be. If we get lost in the metaphor, we won’t see it for what it is. But if we observe it for what it is worth, it can encourage, inspire, and motivate us to pursue true and deeper meaning in the more substantial arenas of our lives.