In Praise of Sports

My great-grandfather John Abercrombie Merritt, after who I am named, lived in Pensacola Florida and always attended the World Series, if possible. This led to his wife becoming a Yankees fan because the shopping was better in New York than other turn-of-the-century baseball cities. She transferred that affiliation to me when I was about 8 years old, watching her favorite player Yogi Berra and the gang on black and white small screen in her living room.

Sometimes I find myself feeling defensive among friends who dislike sports. I understand how weariness of the endless and epic Yang imbalances of our time can lead to this position, and how the spectacle of big-time sports can seem to be out of balance with the rest of life’s priorities.

My take on this is that modern sports, both participatory and viewing, fill a vital role in our subconscious experience. For millennia the human autonomic nervous system has evolved, and been molded by circumstances, to perform as hunter-gatherer-protector. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, the Yang Principle, has existed to mobilize with daytime alertness, to solve complex threatening situations, and to experience the satisfaction of victory via hard-fought struggle. Now, in just the last 100 years, the human system finds itself in a far different world, in which the challenges are muted at best. At worst, a creature who is biologically designed for active engagement lives a life confined to traffic jams, cubicles, medications and nighttime TV. The situation has been depicted in many entertainment media making comedy or tragedy out of the futility and alienation of the modern office existence. Falling Down, with Michael Douglas, is one of many in the genre.

With sports we get an outlet for the ancient autonomic impulses. Each sport has some quality of sympathetic autonomic fulfillment, and each can be analyzed as such, with great insight. Some are about the territorial imperative, some are more about aiming a projectile toward a target, some can be seen as sexual symbolism (keeping in mind that sexual experience is significantly autonomic in nature), many create fields of action for tribal instincts that engage the social branch of the autonomic nervous system. The prevalence of practices that have no rational link to the game itself, such as patriotic/military displays and beautiful cheerleaders (provocatively-dressed and sexy-dancing, no less), further supports the autonomic hypothesis. In a separate discussion I will create a paragraph or two about the subconscious value and autonomic content of some of the major sports.

As participants we experience a momentary deployment of biologically programed physical, emotional and mental skills that otherwise would be mostly dormant in a modern life. As onlookers we join with the tribe in mirror neuron gratification of super-skill performance, including dressing in the regalia of “our people,” and feeling fulfillment when “our” team wins.

I think all large-scale cultural phenomena have an autonomic nervous system dimension, or they would not become large-scale. Movies and TV give us constant vicarious autonomic fulfillment, from adventure and action or fright thrillers to romance and sexuality. Similarly, Religion and Politics can easily be interpreted from an autonomic perspective. Name an activity that attracts the attention of very large numbers of people and I expect an autonomic explanation can be found, no exceptions.

An additional level has been inspired by the new book Initis by Ragliabati, which has been brought back into print by Phil Young of the Polarity Network. The author makes reference to a new-to-me distinction between “Contraries” and “Contradictories.” Contraries are the norm in our experience, defined as anything that happens in relative “shades of gray,” such as light and dark, young and old, hot and cold. Contraries can be usefully modified by “somewhat” or “relatively.” Contradictories are very rare, being phenomena that are absolutely different from the complementary conditions. “Living” and “Dead” are the ultimate examples that meet the Contradictories criteria, and these are universally fascinating. The precision of mathematics and hard science, and the celebrated winning of the big deal in commerce would be other examples of absolutist satisfaction available in normal daily life. We are all fascinated by Contradictories, because they are a hint of the Mystery and the Infinite, which are so instinctually compelling. It seems to me that sports create an artificial experience of the Contradictory state, in that (unlike most of real life) each event has a definite outcome. The goal is scored or not, the shot beats the clock or not, the player is in bounds or out, the putt is in or out. Large masses of people attend these events with religious fervor, to catch a whiff of the Infinite and have momentary relief from their daily grind of “maybe” relativistic feelings.

So please, give the Yang folks space to play and watch sports. It is a much-needed field of action in a modern context, keeping the age-old sympathetic nervous system juices flowing in a world which otherwise becomes “Yang-deficient” rather quickly. Plus all those people are getting a little dose of the Infinite as well, a chance to feel momentary “black-or-white” in a world that is otherwise otherwise mainly tones of gray.

John ChittyComment