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Sports and the search for transcendence

You can expect Jordan Spieth’s name to be in the news for quite some time. He not only won yesterday’s British Open, but did so in spectacular fashion—falling behind after a disastrous thirteenth hole before a spectacular finishing flurry of three birdies and an eagle to end up winning by three strokes. It was a comeback for the ages—a righting of the ship just when it looked like crashing on the rocks was inevitable.

That’s exactly what happened last year at the Masters. Spieth had a five-stroke lead with nine holes left when he bogeyed holes ten and eleven before making a quadruple bogey on hole twelve (which included two shots into the water). Up to that point he had been dominating. He had led all four rounds of the previous year’s Masters before winning it and had led all four rounds of the ’16 Masters until his implosion.

So who is Jordan Spieth—is he the guy who fell part under the pressure of the 2016 Masters

or he is the person who remarkable managed to get the train back on track to win the 2017 British Open? I have to believe we know the answer even if it never makes a byline or a blog. He is both of those.

We’re huge on creating icons in our culture—people we can exalt and put on pedestals for their brains, beauty, athletic ability, business achievements, etc. I suppose this answers the need in us for transcendence—most of us experience so much ordinary in our lives that we feel the need to touch the transcendent and these people are our portal for doing so because they don’t seem to be subject to the same limitations that we have. We we can vicariously identify with them to the extent that for a brief moment or two (or maybe even longer), we can lose ourselves in their seeming transcendence. I do not think this is the only reason that people follow athletics, musical groups or movies stars, but it’s definitely part of the equation for many.

One of the lessons we should learn from athletics is that with dedication and discipline, you can accomplish some pretty amazing things. We can soar in your own way. But if we see athletics in its entirety we should also learn that even the most-talented, highly skilled athletes experience times when they perform at much less than their best. Why? Sometimes the reasons are obvious but just as often they aren’t. They put in the work, gave their maximum effort and things just didn’t work out—period.

Of course there are people who are paid to analyze everything six ways to Sunday and come up with something to appease the people who simply can’t accept the reality of a less-than-wonderful performance. But these analyses are like autopsies that list “natural causes” as the reason for death—they say that because they have to something but the truth is that what they are really saying is that what happened was very “natural.”  But being up on the pedestal precludes that as a possibility for us and therein lies the problem.

Because we don't know everything there is a lot of mystery in life. I'm for knowing all that we can and embracing the mystery of what we can't. I know this, none of us completely controls our own destiny in small and big ways. There are things that happen that are beyond our control and some of these have to do with athletic performance. To ignore this de-humanizes the competitor.

There is no one who is transcendent. There are some very accomplished flawed people who are to be admired for what they have achieved and that is the end of it. If we look at them any elevated sense beyond this it will lead to trouble for them and us. The cult of celebrity we have created does no one any favors. 

If all of this sounds like a downer it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to provide us with a needed dose of reality and help us to appreciate athletes and others for what they are rather than what some people want to believe they are. Maybe if we did more of that, there would be more people looking to the one man who truly had an “indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16).

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