Playing or watching?

In sports, as in life: You can't do both

Issue: "China: Caesar’s seminary," Jan. 27, 2001

Sports as a metaphor of life is often noted, but I never saw it till last Saturday at YMCA roller-hockey: No. 4 is swept off his skates in a tangle of sticks. Rather than springing up immediately, this fallen 10-year-old-in whom I have more than a passing interest-for three split seconds indulges (I cannot think of a better word for it) in a mental shift that is fatal for hockey and maybe for life.

I'm speaking of what philosophers describe as self-consciousness, and I read it all over his face. During this brief interlude the boy has left his fellow players, left the game. Meanwhile, for the swirl of blue and red shirts around him, there is but one truth: the puck, the net. Self is dissolved into something bigger, subject absorbed into object.

One little hockey player needs to learn: At any given moment in life, you can either play the game or watch yourself playing the game. The two are mutually exclusive. When you pass into the one, the clock stops ticking on the other, and for that period at least you are doing something other than true living: You are cannibalizing life. You have slipped into that inferior mode of existence called nostalgia or romanticism. Sit on your laurels after a good play, or stay down too long after a bad play, and while you're lamenting the ship that's left you'll be missing the one that's here.

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I have noted with interest that the Apostle Paul is, in this sense, the most unself-conscious of men. Not only does he not dwell on his past sins (Philippians 3:13-14), but he seems utterly devoid of a certain kind of self-awareness. Maybe he has made some bad calls since the Damascus road and maybe he hasn't, but apart from a regular salubrious spiritual inventory to see that he is walking in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5), he wastes precious little time in second guessing. "I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes" (1 Corinthians 4:3-5).

When in 2 Corinthians 11 Paul feels compelled to catalog his living martyrdom, it feels totally out of character for him; he himself even calls it foolishness. All these things-frequent imprisonments, floggings, stonings, exposure to the elements, shipwreck, danger from bandits, toil, and sleeplessness-are things he has strained to dredge up to memory for the occasion, things he doesn't dwell on normally. They are rubbish compared to the grace that saved him-though they are glorious works.

The film Blazing Saddles by Mel Brooks captured with a one-minute sight gag the self-consciousness that is perhaps the defining characteristic of this generation (clowns are the philosophers of their age). There is a cowboy scene, a macho stampede of horsemen, and as the camera lens pans the desert landscape, on the periphery a full orchestra comes into view, the violins and wind instruments supplying the background music we were only half conscious of before. It is the music we carry around in our heads all day, in the two-ton steel karaoke booths our cars have become.

Surveillance tapes have shown that the Philadelphia Mafia are big fans of The Godfather and religiously tune in to HBO for The Sopranos, which, presumably, they go out and emulate the rest of the week, their lives now transposed to an epic plane, out of the common and into the rare. We may imagine them wistfully dreaming of casting off the sterling dialogue that David Chase hacks out for their ersatz counterparts on his PC.

So what have we here in this contrast between Paul and Nicodemo Scarfo's gang? There are people who are something and imagine they are nothing, and people who are nothing and imagine they are something. Jesus, on the mount, divided all men into two categories: those who take their reward now, and those who take it later (Luke 6:20-36). He who watches himself live rather than living has received his reward in full. He has basked in the warm wash of a thousand standing ovations; he has been the tragic hero of his own great drama. He has enjoyed himself-even his misery.

What is the sanctified man conscious of? He is "conscious of God," says 1 Peter 2:19. He is the servant who puts in a full day's work, and then when evening comes, it never crosses his mind to do anything but serve his master's dinner and say to himself, "I am an unworthy servant; I have only done my duty" (Luke 17).

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