Sunday, January 15, 2012

Football as Metaphor

Here in the U.S., we're in the midst of football playoffs, with the Super Bowl only a few weeks away. Even people who aren't that interested in football are beginning to pay attention (especially if their city's team is still playing). Come Super Bowl Sunday, betting pools will have been set up at offices across the country, and everyone will be talking about the game...or the commercials!

So, what's with our obsession with football? 

Freud would have a field day with football. Think about it: it's basically socially-sanctioned aggression governed by (somewhat arbitrary and hard to follow) rules. Thus, football can be seen as a vivid illustration of the ego's management of the id's aggressive drive via the superego's code of conduct....

But that may be a reach. Perhaps it just boils down to the emphasis our culture places on competition. From an early age, we learn to compare ourselves to one another. Initially, comparison focuses only on how we are the same as or different from each other (peer pressure usually encourages sameness, and creates distress over difference). However, it's not long before comparison becomes more about ranking who is better - smarter, stronger, taller, faster. In other words, comparison becomes competition. 

Childhood is full of opportunities for competition (e.g., grades, school sports, etc.), but competition is more oblique in adulthood. We struggle to measure our worth in comparison to each other using things like money, cars, and other status symbols, or clubs, activities, and good deeds. However, none of these things can clearly determine who is "best." That lack of clarity may be unsatisfying, or even anxiety-provoking. 

Enter professional sports, where adult competition results in clear winners and losers. However, football is different from other sports, at least in the U.S., in that the other sports structure their play-offs around multi-game series, while football is single-elimination. A multi-game series, where the title goes to whichever team wins the more games overall, rather than to the winner of a single game, acknowledges the reality that people have good days and bad days, and that being "best" is more about an average over time rather than a single performance. That seems more like reality to me (life is messy, we all vary in how well we do things, and success is more about consistency over time), but also more anxiety-provoking and less satisfying than the illusion of a clear winner arising from a single contest.

Really, neither system of determining a "winner" tends to be satisfying in the long run: the next season arrives before you know it, and everyone has to prove themselves all over again. I think that is a good parallel for real life - if we structure our lives around competition, we never get to our desired end-point, because there's always another opponent, and there's usually someone who's better that we are in some way. 

Instead, life tends to be more satisfying when we structure it around connection rather than competition. It is relationships rather than comparisons with one another that make life meaningful. After all, while you can never rest on your laurels as the best ____, you can rest in the knowledge that you are cared for and about. 

So, come Super Bowl Sunday, regardless of which team you're rooting for, I'd encourage you to focus at least as much on the people around you as the ones on the television screen. Whatever the game's outcome, if you have connection and companionship, you've won!

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