Yesterday I accidentally found myself exercising at the gym and on the big screen in front of the bike on which I was pedalling away, they were showing two crowds of people who were watching the Football World Cup match between Portugal and Spain. I did not have any sound to listen to, but I think I am right in assuming that one crowd was in Lisbon and the other in Madrid. Both crowds were watching the match taking place in South Africa on big TV screens.
Then a single event happened. The final whistle blew in a match that finished 1-0 to Spain.
One crowd displayed signs of jubilation, hugging and kissing of strangers, jumping up and down, spilling of drinks and waving of flags. The other crowd displayed signs of utter desolation and despair. Big strong hairy men crying their eyes out. Faces in hands. People sinking to their knees. Mouths wide open in disbelief.
Why am I telling you all this? First I will hand you over to a couple of old-timers for their comments.
"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Shakespeare (Hamlet)
"Men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by their opinion of the things that happen." Epictetus
This was a wonderfully clear illustration that it is not the actual events that occur that cause us pleasure or pain, but our own identification with and interpretation of those events. The event itself is absolutely neutral and this can be said of all events that ever occur.
"The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent." Carl Sagan
It is only when we start to identify with one part or another that things stop being neutral. It is only when we start to judge and to choose, to desire and to prefer. It is a bit like watching a horse race. If you haven’t put a bet on, it is just some horses running around a track with tiny men sitting on them. If you have put a bet on then it is an entirely different story.
"So what?" I hear you asking. "What are you suggesting? That we just withdraw entirely from the ups and downs of life? That sounds utterly boring, like death almost."
No, I am not suggesting that. What I am suggesting is that we take responsibility for our choices. I absolutely love the Football World Cup. I absolutely love the passion that it raises and I will get completely involved with the fate of my home nation. That is my choice and with it comes either the elation or misery of that team’s victories and defeats. This year it was very much misery!
The point is that it is an entirely free choice to get involved and I am responsible for that choice. I have chosen to get on the roller coaster. Nobody is making me. I chose it myself for my own enjoyment, knowing full well that there are going to be downs as well as ups.
I can take this attitude into the rest of my life too. It is entirely my free choice whether I choose to get involved and identified with events. If something goes against my desires, there is no point blaming the event and moaning that life isn’t fair. Life is totally and utterly fair at all times, a totally neutral arbiter. The event is always neutral.
My choices and desires are what colour things. I choose to support one outcome against another and know very well that such desires will sometimes be fulfilled and sometimes dashed. Such is the nature of the game. And if I want a rest from the up and down turmoil, then I can choose that too. I can choose to withdraw to a perspective of neutral observer.
It is interesting to note anecdotes in which wives say that their husbands seem to get far more emotionally involved at a football match than they do in everyday life. Why might this be? I would like to suggest that it is because they know that at the end of the day, once the match is over, it doesn’t really matter. There is always the next match, the next season. Because deep down they know that it is ‘just a game’, that gives them the freedom to get totally emotionally involved in the victories and the losses. When the whistle blows, nobody has died. Life goes on.
Once one learns how to move to a perspective beyond the ups and downs of everyday life, the same kind of totality and intensity then becomes possible at all times. So many of us take life so deadly seriously because we are under the impression that ‘this is it, the one and only chance’.
What intense pressure! It can seem so serious that it prevents people from letting go and riding the up and down waves of life to the full. Like someone who completely refuses to take part in a game because they might lose. They stand on the sideline watching others having fun, part of them wishing they had the courage to risk.
Consider the possibility that the ‘one and only chance’ idea is not true at all. Consider the possibility that Life cycles eternally. When one match is over, there is always the next match. When one season is over, there is always the next season. When one World Cup is over, there is always the next World Cup. Consider the possibility that there is never anything to fear and that you can pull on your choice of colours and dive head first into life with all the passion you can muster.
Win some. Lose some. The game never ends. When the whistle blows, nobody has died. Life goes on.
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