Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Trivial and the Important

After offering the 5 PM Vigil Mass on Saturday night, one man from our unofficial Saturday dinner club asked me if I would be joining them as usual. I replied that I could not because I was going to do something really stupid. I was going to the Bengals game. You see: kickoff would be at 8:15; being a night-time playoff game, it would run longer than normal; I live an hour and a half from the stadium; and I had the 8:30 AM Mass on Sunday morning. But I can seize the opportunity just this once and put up with being tired the next day. Plus I appreciate sports. I have played most of the ones that are common in our culture today.

I had a great time at the game, catching up with the friend who invited me, and seeing some good plays on the field. But it was a stark reminder of the societal flip flop that has taken place over the last few decades. When I arrived at the parking lot adjacent to the stadium, the thousands of people tailgating in their orange and black clothing were the first to clue me in that the important has become trivial and the trivial has become important. Already their were long lines for the porta-potties. Already, the women were avoiding the one that was covered in vomit from a fan who had already celebrated too zealously, and the game had not yet started. 

Just a few decades ago, it seemed there was a three-tiered hierarchy. The most important things to get excited about, even culturally, would be those of infinite value and those with eternal consequences. The next level in the hierarchy of needs would be the ability to survive with adequate food, water and shelter. Then, after we are in good standing with the things of the first two levels, there are games. Play is important. Human beings are unique in the world because we have the ability to play games, but they are meant to be trivial, superfluous and enjoyable.

Since people get really excited, there are billions of dollars to be made, and those savvy at marketing are capitalizing big time. The sporting event is the new American liturgy. Athletes are the new gods. The fans drape themselves in the clothing of the athletes. They study the athletes and know their statistics. The fans display raw emotion, at successes and failures of the athletes with colorful, vulgar language and bodily gestures. It is even complete with liturgical dancing. Resting only momentarily, there are 24 women paid to dance suggestively the entire time. This might seem extra, but the people who are in charge of marketing the full "experience" of the game know exactly what their dollars are getting them. All of the things for sale, food and drink, and even the architecture of the stadium play into the total message of what is important. No liturgy is complete without music. There was plenty of it in the tailgating areas and during the game.

In the midst of all of it I began to wonder how we would ever see the important regarded as important and the trivial regarded as trivial. How could people realize games are good but they are just games? In the grand scheme of things, in the eternity of the cosmos, it does not matter which team is victorious in the contest. Since there is big money involved, it will matter to some people in this life: the players, coaches, and those who bet on the game. If only the fans could use their passion for the game as training in the true contest between good and evil in the world. If only those 24 dancing women could know their infinite dignity being made in God's image.

Since there are so many billions of dollars at the top of the industry, those at other levels in the world of sports are drawn into the greed. It seems that decades ago, children would play sports at leisure and still have time for interaction with family, especially their parents. Now it seems that parents are pushing their children to try every sport possible, not for exercise or enjoyment, but just in case of the off chance this child might have some special hidden ability to be the next great one to strike it rich in the pros. Now it's all about winning.

Even though the societal flip flop if the hierarchy of importance has taken place, the seeds of it are nothing new. St. Augustine warned the people of North Africa of an over-emphasis on their adoration of play actors and charioteers over a millennium and a half ago. 

In the correct ordering of the three-tiered hierarchy of the important and trivial, we would study God not athletes. We would study the saints, the ones who are victorious over the real forces of evil. "Evil" in sports is just pretend because the opponent comes from another city or school district. Maintaining the middle tier of the hierarchy, we uphold the importance of food, clothing and shelter for ourselves and those we love. Finally, sports would be regarded as good but trivial, not ends in themselves. They would be means to a greater end. From games we can learn virtues like team work and patience. We can get exercise thus leading to better stewardship of the body which is a gift from God. But these bodies will decay in death. What have I stored up that has infinite value and will last for eternity?