The Olympics and Spirituality

Sports, perhaps especially the Olympics, are somewhat similar to religion. I’m not the first to point this out, by any means, but from time to time, I’m reminded of the similarities:

  • We identify with a group/team based on certain beliefs/desires (we want our team to win, or to achieve salvation).
  • We participate in group rituals (prayer, coming together to watch sports).
  • There are sancta of the group–sacred objects that are invested with special meaning (ceremonial cups/souvenir  cups).
  • There are teleological hopes (achieving salvation/wait ’til next year).

But beyond this listing of similarities, I have a feeling that sports and religion function similarly in fulfilling a spiritual purpose. While this isn’t an unusual claim for religion, it’s less common for sports. Yet, spiritual engagement in sports is the best explanation for why we become so invested in sports (and particularly the Olympics).

We identify our own fate/fortunes with that of our team. Why does it matter to me if the Red Sox win? It doesn’t change my life in any material way. Yet when the Red Sox win, it makes me happy. It gives me joy. Somehow, I’m identified with the team, at an abstract, maybe even Mystical level. When a U.S. gymnast beats a Chinese or Romanian competitor in the Olympics, we celebrate. Why? Not because it will impact our quality of life, or the trade deficit, or anything “real.” And yet, it does seem to make a difference to us.

As with prayer, some of us participate alone in our homes, while others go out into public groups (I’ve been noticing a variety of pubs advertising that they’ll be showing the Olympics). During the “services”, there is both the set order of prayer/events, as well as the “sermons” (either commentary, or those feature stories about the locale of the games). There is even the “wisdom literature,” whether that’s a scriptural reading, or clips of USA Hockey beating the USSR in 1980.

Why does this matter? It matters because we are willing to give great importance to our spiritual lives, while trivializing the attention we pay to the Olympic games. Perhaps we should be more generous to ourselves around our Olympic habits (or addictions, as the case may be). The Olympics provide us with an opportunity to feel good about being Americans, without any partisan bickering, without any caveats (“I’m patriotic, but not pro-military,” for instance). Instead, we are all able to root for our athletes, who, in some way, represent us, and to feel pride in their achievements. And through that pride, to feel connected to all the other Americans who also feel pride.

Things That Shouldn’t Need to be Said

There are certain things that one assumes don’t need to be said. Or even, that to say them would be insulting to the listener. For instance, telling the photographer at the wedding that they aren’t allowed to get between me (the officiant) and the couple during the ceremony. You know, you kind of assume anyone with some common sense knows not to do that. To tell the photographer not to go there implies that you think they might. Nonetheless, I do tell photographers this, while apologizing profusely, and explaining that I say this only because I had a colleague who once had a photographer of the phot0-journalist style at a wedding laying on the ground between the couple and herself, taking photos upwards. But most photographers look aghast when I tell them this story, which is good, because it indicates that most photographers at weddings have common sense.

Another example: If you are hired to babysit for the rabbi’s family, you don’t try to proselytize the children and tell them how wonderful it is to have Jesus in your life. Just a guess, but that probably doesn’t go over well with your employer (true story–I was the child in question).

Now, I thought that I was pretty much inured to anything the American media could throw at me. I may even have said that the media couldn’t do anything so outrageous it would shock me (which may be like a Buffy character saying, “it sure has been quiet lately…”). I was wrong. I was wrong.

Another of those things that you would think go without saying? Don’t use ethnic cleansing, or participation in ethnic cleansing, as a background for a minor character in a sitcom, no matter how edgy you think you are. It’s not okay to make jokes about ethnic cleansing, even if they are supposed to fall flat. It’s certainly not okay to do it when the genocide in question happened recently enough that both perpetrators and victims still live. (There is a possible exception here for people of that ethnic population being darkly comical on the subject–viz. Springtime for Hitler in the Producers).

“Community”, a sitcom which I normally enjoy, somehow decided it was okay to create a character who loves playing war video-games, and is really good at them…because he used to massacre people in the Baltic. Not okay. Not funny. Especially not okay when this isn’t the focus of a “very special espisode”, but rather a subplot in the episode.

So, apparently the American media can do things I find shocking. I just wish they wouldn’t.

Gratitude: A list

Gratitude is a spiritual practice found in many traditions. Nonetheless, it’s all too easy to focus on what we don’t have, or what’s going wrong. We often fail to take note of all that is going right in our life, and even more, we fail to be grateful for the good things in life. So, here’s a (very) partial list of things I’m grateful for this morning:

  • My body: it basically works, no chronic pain or debilitating illness. Were my body not to function as it does, everything else in life would seem harder.
  • When and Where I live: Ovid (43 B.C. – 18 A.D.) once said, “Let other’s praise ancient times, I’m glad I was born in these.” We are less subject to hunger, the vagaries of the environment and disease than any people in the history of the world. I live in a house which is adequately heated in the winter, and can be cooled with fans or air conditioner in the summer. Not having food means needing to go to the grocery store, not needing to go hungry.
  • Being married to my best friend.
  • The Internet: Admittedly, a mixed blessing, but I am able to write this blog, and distribute it myself without any outside review process, without the costs which have traditionally been involved. Furthermore, when I wanted to check the wording for the Ovid quote, above, I just wiki-ed it. It has never been easier to learn or to share ideas than now.
  • Coffee: The flavor, the aroma, the warm morning goodness of it.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list (thank God there’s so much more!). Which makes the question of when to stop writing somewhat arbitrary, so, arbitrarily, I stop here, and invite you to think on some of your own reasons for gratitude (both great and small), and, if you are so moved, to share them in the comments.