When the terrorist Osama Bin Laden was killed I wrote a blog post about it. In response, writer Charles Hale commented, “I haven’t thought this one through but it seems to me the world has become one big sporting event where there’s always one winner, one loser, and millions of fans cheering each side on. Further, the terms used to describe sporting events are often militaristic in nature–blitz, warrior mentality, fight to the death, in the trenches, etc.–and the news programs constantly describe the news with sports metaphors. There is little difference, it appears, between nationalistic fervor and sports fanaticism. They seem to be born of the same mentality. When I watch crowds chanting USA USA, I don’t know if I’m watching the US playing Russia in hockey, a political convention or a news event; it seems they are all one and the same now.”
This meaty insight got me thinking about the psychological and spiritual implications of our intense attachments to our teams, clans, countries and religions. What’s this all about? Is there no difference between nationalistic fervor and sports fanaticism? And if not, is this good or bad?
As mammals, humans share the drives for self-preservation and species-preservation with all mammals. Composed of the instincts for nurturance, activity, and sex, these basic motivations create a powerful dependence on our families and a compulsion to protect them and their territory. Loyalty blended with fierce determination to protect and defend is a recipe for survival that has served us and other predatory mammals like wolves, bears and lions exceedingly well.
Jung said humans also have instincts for reflection and creativity. These account not only for our having reached the top of the food chain, but also for a “higher” level of awareness and yearning which has spawned egos, logical thinking, moral codes, justice systems and religions.
We have the capacity to be as aware of our basic drives as we are of our values, and we can use this awareness to benefit everyone’s team. But if our egos cannot see our shadows — our unconscious instincts, emotions, assumptions, and fears — we are easily overwhelmed by them and can unwittingly betray our noblest selves. Then potentially productive conflicts are transformed from games into wars.
In the Iliad, Homer describes the first Olympic games which gave both sides in the Trojan War a sabbatical from fighting and a way to channel passions that satisfied everyone’s instincts and cultural values. Insofar as sporting events, especially international ones, serve the same purpose today, they are healthy expressions of our shared humanity that satisfy our needs for belongingness, self-esteem, playfulness, meaning, and so on. But if they are only temporary distractions from shadow possession, there’s still much work to be done.
Homer says that Ares, the hot-tempered and passionate God of War, supported Troy. However, the Greeks won the war because they listened to Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom who was a level-headed strategist and counselor. This is a metaphor for the victory of conscious choice over unconscious compulsion. But just how conscious and wise was Athena? Is winning the highest good? Does it prove our virtue and worth or does it merely appease our shadow? We are capable of setting a higher goal than winning the game: the goal of universal justice, cooperation, peace, and love. In real-life war games we need to be very clear about our motivation. Which goal do we serve?
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It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. The very cave