Early "Arena culture"

A friend of mine turned me onto this op-ed by David Brooks about Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly and their new book “All Things Shining. It seems very appropriate on Superbowl Sunday, the holy most holy mass of modern Americana:

[Dreyfus and Kelly] are on to something important when they describe the way — far more than in past ages — sports has risen up to fill a spiritual void.

Spiritually unmoored, many people nonetheless experience intense elevation during the magical moments that sport often affords. Dreyfus and Kelly mention the mood that swept through the crowd at Yankee Stadium when Lou Gehrig delivered his “Luckiest Man Alive” speech, or the mood that swept through Wimbledon as Roger Federer completed one of his greatest matches.

The most real things in life, they write, well up and take us over. They call this experience “whooshing up.” We get whooshed up at a sports arena, at a political rally or even at magical moments while woodworking or walking through nature.

Dreyfus and Kelly say that we should have the courage not to look for some unitary, totalistic explanation for the universe. Instead, we should live perceptively at the surface, receptive to the moments of transcendent whooshes that we can feel in, say, a concert crowd, or while engaging in a meaningful activity, like making a perfect cup of coffee with a well-crafted pot and cup.

Interesting. It called to mind a conversation with said friend about the day he graduated: on how the tradition and ceremony had led to similar feelings that gave him the closest thing he’d felt to a “religious experience.”

People rely on cultural institutions to provide this sense of spiritual unity. Churches definitely rely on that “wooshing up” to keep people coming back. As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote

When we look around, we see many people in whom the Holy Spirit does not appear to dwell. They look dead, as though they were dragging around a corpse, their own body. The practice of the Eucharist is to help resurrect those people so they can touch the Kingdom of Life – (Living Christ, Living Buddah, p.30)

Detail of "The Last Communion of St. Jerone" by Botticelli

From Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist perspective, this is an abundance of sammā-sati, or mindfulness – awareness and reverence of the moment. Even in the protestant tradition, without the element of transubstantiation, there is still a sacred reverence for the act of communion.  This need for pomp and circumstance is true even if it’s just civil religion we’re talking about. Why else do people take citizenship oaths? The same goes for the ceremonial rite of voting, watching a speech like the State of the Union (which effects the economy more than it does the administration’s policy), flag rituals, military burials, the pledge of allegiance, the national anthem, and so on and so forth.

Self-actualization and independent, critical thought and behavior is reliant on individuals not relying on the “wooshing up” that is good for the gander (but not always for the goose). To go back to a Buddhist source:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many… Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders… But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it  – Siddhārtha Gautama, Kalama Sutta

...I have what I want: a certain amount of distance, silence, perspective, meditation, room to do the things I know I must do. - Thomas Merton

I haven’t read their book, but from what David Brooks has said it seems that Dreyfus and Kelly do a disservice to metaphysical pursuits. While Brooks notes “Transcendent experiences are plural and incompatible,” this is by no means a case against their value. When Brooks then writes “we should instead cultivate a spirit of gratitude and wonder” – he is talking about the both personal values people that people can develop and which are the direct offspring of those “transcendent experiences.” The fruits of the spirit are “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal 5:22-23). According to John Dominic Crossan, the historical Jesus’s gospel is one of radical egalitarianism – humility and awe for what each of us are. Buddhism teaches wisdom and compassion. And some of what Dreyfus and Kelly wrote about living perceptively “at the surface” and being aware of such moments is right in line with Dharma and living fully cognizant of each moment as it occurs. But they are realistic about the role of wisdom traditions and spiritual philosophy in modern times:

…For the past hundred years or so, we have lived in a secular age. That does not mean that people aren’t religious. It means there is no shared set of values we all absorb as preconscious assumptions. In our world, individuals have to find or create their own meaning.

This, Dreyfus and Kelly argue, has led to a pervasive sadness. Individuals are usually not capable of creating their own lives from the ground up. So modern life is marked by frequent feelings of indecision and anxiety. People often lack the foundations upon which to make the most important choices…

We may live in a secular society, but that does not mean our experience is necessarily secular. “individuals have to find or create their own meaning” – but as Dreyfus and Kelly note, this isn’t easy for everyone. While that may be true, it seems existentially and personally insincere to simply rely on those social “arenas” to “whoosh” each other up – and we don’t have to totally appropriate or adopt a religious institution to find that meaningfulness.  We can use it in creating a personal narrative for meaning, but ultimately it will be up to our “observation and analysis,” as the Buddha says.

It feels like I’ve written plenty on that topic in the past, so forgive me if this is a little religious-centric, but it’s part of the personal footpath. I don’t need the hype or the fervor of the sports culture to create value in my life – there are many qualms with that to be happy. From the “training in irrational jingoism,” as Chomsky calls it, to the socio-economic inequalities defined by the salaries of sports stars, to the acceptance of sexual assault and internalized misogyny of the sports industry. There’s very little meaningful symbolism for me in millionaires kicking around a ball surrounded by thousands of people who paid lots of money to eat overpriced food and sit in cheap seats while the rest of the world is busy making war, dying of poverty and disease, oppressing or fighting oppression, and engulfed in the tumultuous experience of life.  To me, if anything is a #firstworldproblem, it’s the Superbowl and everything associated with it.