“Victory is no cause for rejoicing…
There should (also) be mourning in heartfelt sorrow
A victory must be observed like a funeral.”
- Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching, 500 BC
You know how it goes. From high school to professional leagues, there are certain rivalries that are longstanding and legendary. College football is probably some of the most intense—Army vs. Navy. Michigan vs. Ohio State. Cal vs Stanford. Oregon vs Oregon State. Notre Dame vs USC. In professional baseball, the Yankees vs. Red Sox, White Sox vs. Cubs, Dodgers vs. Giants. And so on.
The high school my daughters attended had such a rivalry with another local high school and one championship basketball game stands out in my memory. Both teams were well-matched and we clearly were the underdog, but playing at the top of our form. The other school was not only often the winner, but had a tone of entitlement and arrogance and nothing would have been sweeter than to beat them. The score was neck-and-neck the whole game and the energy in that room was electric as we anticipated the sweetness of a long-awaited victory after years of defeat. Never have I felt such excitement in the stands, as if a lit match would ignite the whole gym. And so it came down to the final seconds and we were ahead by one, only to watch in disbelief as the other team threw up the ball at the buzzer and down it came swishing through the net. Stunned silence from our half of the bleachers.
And then something so unexpected and so beautiful happened. We came down on to the court to meet our players and spontaneously, a circle formed around them and their (and our) disappointment was held in a loving embrace acknowledging far beyond any cliché how glorious their effort had been and how proud we were of them. We all just stood there, arms joined, in a deeply held silence and then a cheer.
I thought of this after the Warrior’s basketball victory. I joined the hundreds of fans in Yancey’s Bar to whoop and shout and celebrate the well-deserved winning of the NBA Championship after 40 years. But then I watched as the Cleveland Cavaliers headed to the locker room with the weight of their loss on their shoulders and felt just a little bit small rejoicing at their expense. Not in some New-Age-let’s-play-without-keeping-score kind of way, but in the spirit of Rilke’s, “When we win, it’s with small things and the winning itself makes us small.”
Not to belittle the NBA Championship as a small thing. There's a lot of glory in it. I wouldn’t want to change anything about the way sports works—except one. I accept and enjoy the intense competition and the fact that only one team will “win.” The Tao Te Ching quote above is speaking of war, a game whose ante is a thousand notches higher than a game, with real death and destruction as the necessary component of “winning.” (Poet William Stafford wrote years ago “Every war has two losers.”) Sports takes that aggressive energy and channels it into a friendlier place with so much less damage. (Apparently, it hasn’t yet replaced war, as we continue to have both. But I always felt that it could. Israels vs. Palestinians in soccer and the prize—land!) What is worth considering is the style of the winning and the ritual healing of the “loss.”
Take the word “competition.” In its origin, “com” means with (as in “con” in Spanish)— “contest,” to test together, “companion”, to break bread together, “competition” to petition the same god together and use each other to get closer to the upper limits of human achievement. I just saw the film “Love and Mercy” about Brian Wilson and it talks about how Brian listened to the Beatles “Rubber Soul” and was inspired and competitively moved to answer with his own version of a unified album, “Pet Sounds.” Apparently, the Beatles heard that and thought, “Dang! We gotta up our game” and came up with “Sergeant Pepper.” Just like the recent game where LeBron James scored a long-distance 3-pointer and then the next play, Stephen Curry countered with the same. And one of the sweetest moments in last night’s victory was LeBron coming over to Curry with 10 seconds left and the game clearly decided and giving him a hug. Both of them petitioning the same god and acknowledging the beauty of their collective efforts, ultimately with each other, not against.
But let’s take this further. What if after the game, the fans came down to encircle the Cavaliers and hold them in a web of love, not in a condescending pitying kind of way, but in a real affirmation of the glory of their struggle and their valiant efforts. And then the Warrior players teamed up with the Cavalier players and performed a ritual song or dance to thank each other for the opportunity and offer their contest up to the god they both petitioned daily in their practice. Yes, there would still be some disappointment on one side and some rejoicing on the other, but it would take some of the bite and sting out of the first and bring some humility and appreciation to the second.
Can you imagine the trickle-down effect? Maybe our culture would finally begin to realize that we need to collectively grieve for all those we have killed in Iraq, for all the centuries of slavery and genocide, for all the recent police killings. Perhaps our arrogance about economic privilege would soften and we’d begin to be more generous and compassionate to less fortunate both far away and on the streets of our every city. Perhaps we’d stop trying to fuel the “We’re number one!” mentality and begin to lean towards the “We are all one” mentality that could begin to bring real healing to a troubled world.
Just a thought.
Hey, professional sports people! Give me a call. Let’s talk.