All of my friends and my parents were ardently watching The World Cup in 2014 while I took a rather conflicted stance. That day and the championship win taught me something invaluable which I reflect upon more and more today.
I used to be a big fan and would go out vivaciously to the New York City bars just to catch the games – even the Parisian bars... Since my monastic era, I’ve been significantly less enthusiastic, especially about the bars.
Though no one attempted to persuade me otherwise, seeing the enthusiasm of those close to me, including former monks, effectively caused me to feel a little out of the loop… And the inundation of work these days made it all the more difficult to get back into the fervor, even if I could indeed be inadvertently peer-pressured to do so.
Though I was by no means proud of this, I managed to make it through to the final day without watching a single game or checking a single score. Then things changed.
I got my Chinatown massage and searched for a pot that could be used to cook for a substantial gathering at an upcoming event.
I was winding up to our little 7th St. studio with large pot in hand and suddenly stopped at Sarah Roosevelt Park on Houston Street.
There, I observed two street games of basketball taking place simultaneously on adjacent courts. The first was an official full-court match with jerseys. The second was an informal half-court recreation. All of the players in both games were young black men, save for one.
On the far court where the friendly pastime was underway stood a solitary silver-haired white man playing point-guard. This caught my eye as my mind danced between the two competitions.
The intense full-court match was rather engaging too, especially with all of the high-octane performances and accompanying cursing of both winners and losers. I watched as graceful plays led to great, great ego displays. And mistakes led to arguments and bargaining with referees.
Meanwhile, our lone older Caucasian seemed to be integrated quite well with his team. He had the ball more than anyone else and he passed it more than anyone else. He rarely took a shot himself. This appeared to make his teammates trust him, which is exactly what I remembered being the effect of such an attitude whenever I had played the game.
He played hard and sweated profusely, as did all of the other players surrounding him – though perhaps not as much as this elder man with the odds stacked against him. He was not as skilled and not as energetic, but he gave it his all as he appreciated the skill in the others, and so, in turn, he was appreciated.
Daniel Goleman writes in his increasingly relevant 1998 article “What Makes a Leader” for the Harvard Business Review:
“When I compared star performers with average ones in senior leadership positions, nearly 90% of the difference in their profiles was attributable to emotional intelligence factors rather than cognitive abilities [as well as technical skills].”
He goes on to say:
“When I calculated the ratio of technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence as ingredients of excellent performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels.”
By contrast to the impressive show and depressive bickering at the full-court level, everyone on the less dazzling half-court looked happy as they high-fived and prepared to part ways.
I reluctantly prepared to part ways myself as I smiled at being spontaneously captured by sports that didn’t offer me any physiological benefit. I continued again on my way to our flat, when I was greeted by a flat-screen television strategically positioned in the window of a bar to attract passersby.
The place was overflowing with energy as the television marked the 111th minute of the soccer game. Announcers counted down towards what looked like an inevitable shoot-out between Germany and Argentina.
Just about to get back on my track, I caught the German team passing the ball up the field to Andre Schurrle, who dribbled forward aggressively.
My eyes were transfixed.
Then the pass to Gotze.
Gotze received it with his chest.
He fluidly brought it under control in one fell swoop and knocked it in the Argentine net!
The 22-year-old substitute, Mario Gotze, who came in 2 minutes before regulation play ended, and the 23-year-old substitute, Andre Schurrle, who likely may not have come it at all if not for the injuries of Sami Khedira and Christoph Kramer, suddenly became the unlikely duo to win the cup for the country after 24 years...
I stood gaping for a few moments as I marveled at the timing and tried to ignore the shouts by hyped up announcers of “SUPER MARIO!” “SUPER MARIO!”
Just three days earlier, David Brooks wrote about soccer as a metaphor for life in his New York Times article entitled, “Baseball or Soccer?”
He argues that baseball is a sport predicated on individual talents shining forth in the pursuit of a common goal. Sounds noble. But he quickly distinguished what becomes apparent in Brooks’ eyes to be the nobler of the two sports (at least as metaphor for life)...
In soccer, the interdependence of players and subsequent necessity of social attunement provides for a most elegant experience that more accurately mirrors the necessity of our lives.
Reflecting on my day’s experiences and the arrangements of the universe to make my consciousness a little more sportive alongside the rest of the world, I became consumed by a single question:
Would you rather be a team player or play God?
We have to honestly assess what excites us most. It was clear between the two basketball games. And it was clear by how the Germans won in Brooks-ian terms.
For me, I can honestly say, what’s most exciting? It's playing God.
But being a team player is far more fulfilling…
To play God is a cheap thrill. It’s wired in us from birth and difficult to wean ourselves off of.
I was simultaneously charmed and saddened to see a little baby girl give a gaping smile every time she could make a door swing open with her teeny tiny hand!
We’re addicted to that feeling of being able to make things happen. To be bigger than we are. To bask in the glory of our wishfully limitless capacity.
But to be part of a team is actually to be bigger than we are and to tap into a much less limited capacity. It is to realize our connection with others and our place in the world, rather than controlling others and feeling we earned our position of superiority. It is a humble, grounded, and heart-opening way of being, where we inspire one another rather than compete with one another.
In sports, there’s always some competition, just as in life, but when we can take it as play, we’re much better off than when our lives are dependent on the outcome.
This has been eye-opening for me to remember in all that I do. And my life to this point can be summed up as an effort to convert my instinctive excitement to play God into the sustainable fulfillment of being a team player.
To succeed, it takes honesty and self-awareness about my very real love for control.