Monday, April 2, 2012

The David Brooks Dilemma

Jacob and Esau, by Watts (1878)
The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!

- Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 1

The glory of God is the human being, fully alive.

-St. Irenaeus Against Heresies, Book 4, 20:7

JEREMY LIN made two straight Sports Illustrated covers, so why not two mentions here?

A while back, David Brooks published a piece in the New York Times entitled "The Jeremy Lin Problem."

Brooks is a very good writer. But as the piece unfolds, he looks more like a sports observer than participant. To observers, sports are primarily a display, the athlete theatrical.  But, many athletes do not play for the theatrical (though maybe for the drama) and would be happy without the public display.  

He writes
Ascent in the sports universe is a straight shot. You set your goal, and you climb toward greatness. But ascent in the religious universe often proceeds by a series of inversions: You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself; to gain everything you have to be willing to give up everything; the last shall be first; it’s not about you.
For many religious teachers, humility is the primary virtue. You achieve loftiness of spirit by performing the most menial services. (That’s why shepherds are perpetually becoming kings in the Bible.) You achieve your identity through self-effacement. You achieve strength by acknowledging your weaknesses. You lead most boldly when you consider yourself an instrument of a larger cause.

But, then Brooks turns down a path I can't follow. He quotes Lin, 
I’m not working hard and practicing day in and day out so that I can please other people. My audience is God. ... The right way to play is not for others and not for myself, but for God. I still don’t fully understand what that means; I struggle with these things every game, every day. I’m still learning to be selfless and submit myself to God and give up my game to Him.
Brooks draws his conclusion: "The odds are that Lin will never figure it out because the two moral universes are not reconcilable." (emphasis added).

He cites the philosopher Soloveitchik for the idea that we have two natures: “Adam the First…the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world…” Then, there is “Adam the Second…the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.”

I have a problem with this: Why cannot the worshipful man be involved in and committed to building the world?  I am not two conflicting natures, but one unified nature, i.e., "me." It's  precisely this awe and humility before the world which convinces me that building and working for good in it are worthwhile pursuits.  It is my deep respect for each person, an icon of God, that reveals to me her depth, potential, beauty and worthiness. I’m honored by any invitation to participate in her edification (literally “building up”) and take it up heartily.  It is a great privilege to be welcomed as a fellow traveler.  We call this "friendship," a concept that is at once "worldly" and "spiritual."  At once.

At first blush Brooks’ paradigm seems to make sense: The ethos of sport and the religious ethos wrestling in a man’s soul like Jacob and Esau in Rebekah’s womb. But, as a participant in sport and in Christianity, I find Brooks' dichotomy unsatisfying, even false.  Well-informed in its set-up, it is somewhat naive in its resolution. He shows up with all the pieces, but throws them in the air, declaring that they cannot be assembled (because has not?). As a good a writer as he is, Brooks seems a bit outside his life experience on the subjects of athletics and Christianity.  

There are elements of athletics that have informed my religious life, visa-versa. In youth work, I am at once a runner-Christian and a Christian runner. More accurately, I am one “me.” 

I am not wrestling to resolve irreducible "athlete-ness" with irreducible "religious-ness."  Here, dogma actually finds its way into everyday life (Wonder of wonders!): Christians affirm that Jesus is at once fully human and fully divine (*).  Likewise, I am not body plus (or versus) soul, I am a human being, one person living one human existence. At once.

These things came together during the last stage of my last race, the Flying Dutchmen 5k. About 3 minutes (and God knows how far) to go, I closed in on a fellow competitor, a kid of no more than 18 years.  I felt all the love in Heaven and Earth for the guy, and -- at once -- an utter thirst to pick him off and leave him hapless and hopeless in my dust.  

A seasoned runner friend would later refer to me as a “stone-cold assassin” (You better believe I will repeat that to myself before every race!). I don't think for a second he meant that I had in anyway abandoned Christianity, or the Christian ethos. As an athlete and Christian himself, the question probably never came to his mind.

I suppose that Reggie White understood this, as did Foreman and Ali, but I do not pretend to know the secrets of their hearts.  

"No hard feelings, Mo!"
"Yeah, no worries, George!"

"Where you going, son?"

But, I can't dismiss Brooks all together, nor do I want to, since she has given me something valuable to think about. 

But the tone of this particular piece is of one who has reached the mountaintop and has determined that the issues are not resolvable.  But isn't this a major critique of religious people, the supreme turn-off, that they talk down as having "gotten it all figured out."

The truth is, each person is a symphony of  appetites, including religious.  I relate to Jeremy Lin because, like me, he is still resolving these issues.

"Narrow is the way, Drew!"

I think this is our task in all facets of life. The process is, itself, a kind of resolution.

But can I really relate my experience -- a competitive local road racer -- to Jeremy Lin's? I couldn't help thinking of Lin, Brooks and myself this morning as I worked to keep my physical effort in line with that honest, unforgiving measure, the clock.  I was not before a crowd at The Garden.  No one was near that track, but a few high schooler hecklers.  But there comes a moment in every athlete's existence -- sometimes no more than a moment -- at the very heart of performance, when it all goes black: the theater, the crowd, it all fades aside; you have lost contact with the road or the ball has left your hands, even the clock vanishes and...

(*) At the very climax of the Coptic liturgy, the celebrant proclaims: “I believe that his divinity parted not from his humanity for a single moment nor the blink of an eye.”


Terzah said...

“I believe that his divinity partednot from his humanity for a single moment nor the blink of an eye.”

Great post!

maged t said...

I guess Brooks was not referring to the difficulty of reconciling faith and competitiveness on the court, but rather that of reconciling the demands of faith (love and humility) and the ultimate goal of a professional athletic career which is the domination of the pack. One can probably strongly win a competition in total humility, love and a self effacing spirit. On the other hand, having a laser sharp focus on building a name for one’s self by dominating a competitive field (in sports or anywhere else) can hardly be achieved with some sacrifice of integrity and character along the way. Let alone love and humility. The temptation for self aggrandization gets too strong to resist.

Nader Alfie said...

Thank you for posting!

I absolutely agree that a self-seeking focus on building a name for oneself, for its own sake, is pursued at a cost to integrity.

I also know a Maged T who taught me that excellence comes as a consequence of faithfulness. I think love and humility are what keeps a person atop the pack. They characteristics, draw support from others, which is necessary for long-term success. Their absence draw resentment, lack of support, and even sabotage.

Fundamentally, I disagree with the idea that we live as two conflicting, *irreconcilable* natures.

I will not throw up the sponge!

Jeff said...

Nader, I really liked this one. With respect to maged t's comment, I think it's important to call attention to the bad habits that sport can create. Surely something like a will to dominate is one of those habits. I wonder also, though, whether religious faith does not also carry with it a potential for the development of bad habits--for example, a will to dominate the self in the name of humility. Just as competitive play can go wrong, religious faith and even core values like love and humility can also go wrong.

So, to me the best distinction is not between competition and love, but between the positive and negative forms of both of these activities. We don't have to decide between competing with the other and loving the other. The difficulty we face is competing well and loving well--and not doing these things poorly.

When we compete well with others, that competition serves to bring out the best in others. There is compassion in the competitive challenge. Likewise, it strikes me that love and humility cannot be practiced well without constructing a self that is strong enough to love and confident enough to find expression in humility. At the root of love and humility, we find strength and power.

In other words, I think Nader's post does a great job of pointing out the ways in which competitive play can be a practice of love, both in our relations to others and in our relation to self. Of course this competitive play can go wrong, but like Nader, I would not want to put some sort of metaphysical clash between competition and love at the root of what can go wrong.

I am not a Christian, but it seems to me that, as Nader said, the fundamental teaching of Christianity is that humility and strength are not opposite values, but instead are fundamentally and inextricably related. That's a pretty powerful (and loving) thought. Thanks, Nader, for the reminder.


Nader Alfie said...

Jeff, thank you for these thoughtful remarks.

I did not consider it, but it is quite possible for love and humility to go quite wrong, and -- when practiced from a place of weakness -- risk turning into the something really bad, like manipulation.

Competitive challenge as an act compassion: Good stuff. We experience this in friendship: Your true friends will challenge you with opinions you'd rather not hear. Tough for you and tough for them. Such is love.

Thank you, all!