Thursday, May 29, 2008
The 'Big Game': Baseball, Milton and Choices
So the Mets won last night. After shul and before learning and work, I heard the results on internet radio, the Mets station, WFAN. It was a big win, the second straight and only their sixth of the last nine, and it happened in dramatic fashion. The Mets were down twice, and came back each time. In the second instance, the Mets tied the game in the ninth witus a pinch hit homerun by Endy Chavez, and though they threatened to lose by giving up a run in the top of the twelfth (extra innings for non-American readers), Fernando Tatis, a new name on the Mets roster, singled in the tieing and winning runs. I heard all of this during an update which segued into a call-in program for fans (people up at 1:30 AM in the morning and...me) wanting to discuss the latest exploits of the Amazin's. I was tempted to call in myself, but was embarrassed by the prospect of having to introduce myself as "Bill from Jerusalem." In any event, after the win, there were several jubilant callers; one enthused, "The Mets are back! It's great to be on top again."
I was struck by the fan's comments--'back on top again!' Baseball is a very long season. As the political commentator George Will once offered, "you can't grit your teeth through the baseball season." It's simply too long for the investment of emotions in a single moment. Teeth gritting is for other sports, football perhaps, but certainly not baseball. With 162 games, extending over six months, it's a very long season. Just like it's not a game for teeth-gritting, it's also not one for undue expressions of euphoria. There's a rhythm to baseball, and one game, however exciting and seemingly momentous, does not a beat make.
Recently a very wise friend of mine, who happens to be an Atlanta Braves fan (Mets' arch rivals for the uninitiated), just happened to mention in the end of an email message (he was actually needling me) that the Braves had taken the first two of four games against the Mets (in the end, the Mets were swept in the series). Though he was clearly enjoying the moment, he was not one to gloat excessively, and his enthusiasm for the recent Braves triumphs was qualified by his thoughts for what he called 'the long summer ahead.' This I felt was the attitude of the mature baseball fan: at once immersed in the moment, but at the same time conscious of the big picture.
We can have the typical baseball fan's attitude about life, or we can cultivate the perspective of my wise friend. To the mentality of the typical fan, individual moments are invested with momentous importance of great personal triumph or catastrophic defeat. A good job interview, a promotion, a compliment received becomes a positive referendum on the self; the opposite a disastrous affirmation of our failure. The former may not seem so bad, except of course when the referendum goes bad: the job interview didn't go as well as you had thought; your co-worker was promoted to an even better job; the compliment was followed by a verbal twist of the knife (or conversely, the latter defeatist perspective prevents one from seeing present and future good). This does not mean that we are not nourished by the moment: we certainly can gain strength from our successes (even if they are only apparent), and learn lessons from our failures. But as soon as they become more than that--definitive snap-shots of ourselves which we put up on our psychic mantles for all time--we know we are in trouble.
To view a momentary success as a defining moment ('it's great to be on top again'), or the converse ('it's all over now!') represents a failure to see the big picture, not just the whole season, but our lives and how our own stories are not always subject to our control. To put it more strongly, investing a particular moment or choice with ultimate significance is a contemporary form of idol worship--an unqualified belief in the power of the self or money or your boss (or whatever you believe is the determining factor of your life). Acknowledging that there are other variables (in fact, an infinite number!) is the first step to recognizing the divine...and providence. Milton got it right when, in his Paradise Lost, he calls Adam and Eve "authors to themselves," but refers to G-d as the "Author of all Things." We live in the moment, and narrate the story (or various strands of the different stories) that make up our lives. But that narrative is dependent upon another narrative, that composed by the 'Author of All Things.' To acknowledge our place in that narrative is to move past the sensibility which is expressed in the contemporary mantra, "people make choices." To be sure, we do make choices, but those choices do not always result in the consequences which we expect. Indeed, the image of control that the 'people make choices' mind-set affords is just an illusion.
So as baseball fans, we may relish the moment ('the Mets win!'), but also understand that it's a moment in time, part of a whole season. As Jews we realize that we make choices and live in the moment with all of the intensity which it demands, while never losing sight of the larger frame--how our own stories fit into the larger and precedent stories of which there is only one sole Author. So the 'big game' may offer the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, but we have to remember that in the end, it's a long season.