Archive for September, 2013

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At the Altar of the NFL: Sports as Eucharist

September 20, 2013
TDF Guest Don Ashe

TDF Guest Don Ashe

The NFL has fired up again and I felt myself reacting with pleasurable thoughts and feelings. Watching great passes and catches, running backs out maneuvering or just plain running over opponents, the fumbles, the upsets, the falls. I anticipate watching it all and feeling good throughout the process. In fact , it sounds so good, I think I will enhance the expectable party with equally anticipated fattening foods and imbibery. Bring it on!

I paused and asked, why was this so? I’m happily anticipating sitting in front of a flashing flat, glowing multi-colored screen emitting various sounds that, when projecting a so called football game, typically generate happy feelings in me, so much so, that I will, of my own free will, sit in place for 2 or more hours staring happily at the glowing, noise emitting screen, often smiling and vocally, and often uncontrollably, crying out with joy or anguish in response to the projections entering my eyes and ears. Is this what life’s about? Well, that’s a big question, but one thing I know: I like thinking about watching football games I’ve never seen before. For me, football is a bit special. It’s one slight, tiny smidge of an inch closer to what resonates deep within people a bit more than other sports. At least for now.

Try this. Think of football, along with many other cultural expressions, as a reenactment of humankind’s prehistoric narrative of life’s terrifying moments when survival meant clashing with another tribe who are attacking for food or territory. Successful strategies, split second reactions, and out maneuvers were the difference literally between life and death, not just winning or losing. Of course, the stories remembered, the historical narratives, recall the most successful of humans, the survivors; the nimble, powerful, and quick heavyweights battling it out until one succumbs and the other triumphs.

These experiences were so powerful they were likely indelibly etched upon the memories of all survivors. As hard as one might try to forget it, the memory resiliently returned of the ferociousness and immediacy of horrific, bloody, frightening scenes. Then again, as bad as it sounds, what better for the survival of the tribe and species than to recall over and over the actions that either conquered and/or defended oneself? “Remember that day when Uncle Soandso killed the hyena by . . . ?” Even defeats were remembered as valuable lessons of what to avoid.

Another sobering speculation about prehistoric time is, these battles took place at a time when it was more likely than not to have witnessed one of your immediate family members, including children, being eaten alive by a more powerful animal or pack of animals. Again, the memory of that gory, agonizing spectacle would have scorched on the memory of any survivor a constantly persistent and fear filled memory of what might happen to them any day in the future as long as they survive. Not just the idea of death in the rational sense, but death in the sense of what they already watched in horror and felt as sickeningly conflicted in their reaction between naturally wanting to help the victim and naturally wanting to flee for self survival, a true double bind. Prehistoric guilt.

And it only takes once of going through the experience of witnessing death at work to leave survivors with a permanent sense of never ending vulnerability. Yet this permanent mental scar actually served the blind survival purposes of the species, acting as a beacon of warning to never forget the constant possibility of death’s threat, to be ever vigilant in looking back over one’s shoulder in fear of being the target of the next attack.

So this ability to use one’s brain to remember and analyze key threatening events contributed to the survival and flourishing of these otherwise relatively weak animals, the early homo sapiens. Amazingly, using memory and language, homo sapiens were able to successfully transmit critical survival knowledge to offspring.

While Jungian archetypes may be too much of a stretch empirically to explain this memory transmission between generations, it is reasonable to suggest that early imprinting upon an offspring’s neural pathways of how to survive and remain vigilant against the threat of death took place quite naturally via verbal stories and warning signs all through early formative development. Prehistoric storytelling acted as embryonic seeds of what would much later evolve into the multifaceted wonder of human culture.

Of course, these early oral narratives had more than mere entertainment value. They constantly reinforced what’s ultimately important to remember in order to survive and flourish. In other words, the chances of survival are increased in direct proportion to the ability to remember the constant threat of death. But remembering death’s threat is a delicate business that forces the human to walk a tightrope to maintain psychological equilibrium. Too little remembrance results in vulnerability and death, too much remembrance results in crippling fear and death.

So how did the homo sapiens manage this seemingly elusive balance? Could it be that familiar remembrance rituals reenacting the critical moments and battles eventually evolved over years of interpretation into safe and predictable social events as actual death threats became less frequent? As human beings learned to organize themselves and understand their enemies the actual violent death events became less unavoidable and more a thing of unfortunate timing.

Still, remembrance rituals can never be completely abandoned. This would spell certain death for humans whose very neural brain pathways had evolved to service this purpose. The ritualized remembrances persisted through early simple culture such as drama and religion. In drama these early humans may have taken the basic form of a reenactment story and infused it with interest by changing the names or characters in the story, but always remembering the salient points regarding survival.

Prehistoric religious expressions may have been much like drama, but paired back to the essentials. Abbreviated stories using symbols and appealing to any power larger than oneself. Sacrifice to offer to unseen powers and to bring to remembrance the bloody horror of the eternal death threats. Eucharistic-like images to bring one back to the point of it all: Suffering and pain unceasingly chases us, so do your best to survive each and every moment.

And the rituals not only persisted, but exploded through sport. Games of competition, whether one-on-one or team competitions, both fulfilled the purposes of the needed remembrance reenactments of battles and prowess while affording pleasurable distraction from the crippling truth of the determined inevitability of succumbing to death.

Though sports alone are not the only cultural expressions based on early human struggles with death they certainly are one of the most ubiquitous and diversely attended, not to mention extravagantly funded, rituals that to most humans often appear meaningless when viewed as a mere end to itself. I enjoy basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey, golf, and the Olympics. But when you extract it from out of the people and their feelings, it’s nothing more than persons playing with balls.

We the people infuse the games with importance, the need to conquer, self worth, achievement, cleverness, and ability in the face of opposition. The quarterback sizes up the enemies, calls out any modifications to the battle plan, initiates the attack with the snap of the ball. Suddenly, the biggest, strongest, and fastest warriors are desperately and maniacally clawing there way toward the man holding the prized possession, such as, oh who knows, maybe a pigskin, through a titanic crash of deadly forces.

The idea here is to kill the possessor of the prized possession by bringing him to the ground where he can be subdued and incapacitated. In a split second move the possessor may hand off or throw the prized possession to another warrior, redirecting the attackers to him who must now fight to get the possession to a safe place before he can be incapacitated. This requires hand to hand contact, out maneuvering, out running, and out smarting the enemy, all in a matter of a few precious seconds. The exciting and violent clash of these death battles between gladiators repeats again and again, thrilling spectators with the rush of witnessing the test of their best soldier’s power, stamina, and strategy.

It’s a great reminder of the daily battle we must all endure. And it all takes place in both symbolic and nitty gritty fashion before the altar of the NFL. Symbolically reminding us on the one hand that life is threatening and humans must continually fight to survive. On the other hand, pass the chips and watch these dudes go at it.

Yes, there’s something about the ole Gridiron that heats me up at the core.

Don Ashe has been a Becker enthusiast since 1978. He graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1980 and served in ministry for 10 years. He has been teaching philosophy at Azusa Pacific University since 2001. Don lives with his wife of 36 years in Hermosa Beach, CA.

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Banishing Childhood Nightmares

September 12, 2013
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Here’s a story that may be useful:

Dad has two daughters, let’s call them Vivian and Ellen. Vivian, the older and more volatile kid, has weathered many a bad dream in her early years. When dreams wake her, she’s usually coped by finding Dad, who’s often at the keyboard after midnight, climbing into his lap, and describing the dream in vivid detail. When Dad assures her that dreams are only another form of thinking, Vivian enthusiastically begins wondering out loud about why she might have been thinking about tonight’s particular monsters. Since Vivian’s temperament is pretty assertive, with no shortage of indignation and anger in difficult moments, her explanations of her dreams work to calm her down. By turning her nightmare into a story, taking the role of author, she controls an experience which otherwise would seem to control her—and, in the wisdom of slang, “scare the daylights out of her.”

Ellen, the younger sister, is temperamentally calmer and more inward. Unlike Vivian, she’s slept serenely to age 5, when suddenly one night she awakens in terror and jumps into Dad’s lap with sobs and streaming tears: actually speechless with anguish.

Dad tries to comfort the dreamer with the storyteller trick: “You know, Vivian makes her bad dreams go away by talking about them. Why don’t you tell me what you were dreaming about?”

Ellen stops sobbing just long enough to croak, “I’d rather not.”

Rinse and repeat.

By this time Dad’s shirt is soaked and the dreamer is still tormented. Dad begins to wonder about the creaturely motives implied in Ellen’s behavior. Where Vivian is inclined to fight, Ellen’s woken up with her nervous system in flight. The nightmare is bigger than she is, as mysteriously alien as it is menacing. In sleep she’s in unfamiliar, dangerous territory where monsters are overwhelmingly in control.

In hopes of a dry shirt, Dad reaches for the nightmare emergency kit. Though he knows the answer, he asks Ellen, “How old are you?”

“Five,” she says.

“Good. Then you’re old enough for me to teach you the trick I taught Vivian to stop her nightmares.”

“What is it?” Ellen snuffles.

“Come with me.”

Reluctantly she lets Dad direct her back to her bed. She lies on her back, still crying, body rigid as a plank. Dad whispers: “You’re the boss of your own mind.”

“No I’m not.” More helpless tears.

“Yes, you really are. But it only works if you take charge of your thoughts.”

“But I can’t.”

“Sure you can. But that’s why you need the secret.”

“What’s”—sob—”the secret?”

“You have to say ‘Get out of here you bad dream, and don’t you ever bother me again!'”

(!)

“Try it.”

Tentatively, almost beseechingly, Ellen says, “Get out here, you—”

“Whoops, no. You have to show the dream you really mean it.”

“How do I do that?”

“Get angry. Say ‘GET OUT OF HERE, YOU BAD DREAM, AND DON’T YOU EVER BOTHER ME AGAIN!”

“But I’ll wake Mum.”

“That’s OK. Try it.”

Get out of here, you bad—”

“Louder.”

“But I’ll wake everybody up.”

“Good. Wake up the neighbors if you have to.”

After ten or more tries, each a little bolder than the one before, Ellen finally managed to bellow the magic formula. And in no time: Zzzzzzzzz.

Some months later Dad wakes up in the dead of night thinking a truck or a horn has shaken up his sleep. But then in another room he hears a small voice sternly commanding a bad dream to scram. Followed by Zzzzzzzzz.

There’s an epilogue or at least another chapter to the story. Months later, Mum, Dad, and the girls are in the balcony of the local theater for a holiday performance of “The Nutcracker” ballet. The lights go down, the stage is alight. A Christmas tree is festooned with ornaments—symbolic harvest fruit in the barren dead end of the year. There are presents and the warm glow of family. The music begins to hypnotize the audience.

Before long, the sinister mouse dances into the family living room. And in the first row of the balcony, Ellen leaps to her feet, clutches the brass rail, and bellows at the top of her lungs, “GET OUT OF HERE, YOU BAD MOUSE!”

You can see that by ritualizing and giving permission for anger, Dad’s experiment was turning flight into fight. The ritual was designed for an individual Ellen, but the principle can be useful.

As in the Victorian childrens’ prayer, sleep is a little death, and kids’ fear of “falling” asleep is perfectly reasonable. The prayer comes from an era when many of your kids would be dead by age 10, and their siblings would know first-hand that they were (so far at least) lucky survivors:

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Today that terror’s mostly banished like the evil mouse, but the dynamics of sleep are still frightening. After all, nightmare monsters usually dramatize the inchoate threat of death and oblivion that haunts humans of all ages. Talking back to death, the awakened sleeper is “getting up her nerve,” fortifying her courage. Once she regains “self-confidence,” she can begin to explore what she’s dreaming: what she’s thinking in sleep—that is, herself.

Like the role of storyteller, as “boss of your own mind,” Ellen was reconstituting her conscious self from sleep. Instead of narrating a dream and objectifying it that way, she was acting out a social script, a confrontation with an overwhelming menace. In effect, she was practicing talking back to a world that is always bigger than we are, and whose dominance over us would ultimately stand for conformity and inauthenticity and death—outcomes Dad was in no rush to explain to the dreamer, since by learning to stand up to the world, she was well on her way to learning about the philosophical implications in person.