This Is Cycling

“There is something bizarre, yet intoxicating, in the way cycling juxtaposes these little dramas of pain and suffering amid landscapes of sublime beauty. As Nietzsche wrote in “The Gay Science”, “what if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?”

The Economist’s new lifestyle magazine, 1843, published a piece by author and journalist Tom Vanderbilt on what it’s like getting into cycling. Titled “The Long and Winding Road”, the essay deals with midlife crises to start and moves on to how a sport can be so addictive. It’s stunningly written, and comes as close as anything I’ve ever read to capturing why cyclists put themselves through so much pain to repeatedly go up mountains.

On Making Decisions Despite the Instability of Our Future Selves

Every so often a certain theme or idea can continue to pop up seemingly everywhere in life. It’s as if by thinking about something once we are primed to find it everywhere, and without looking or trying we will be bombarded with many riffs on the same theme for the next month or so. This has happened to me a great deal recently, especially with the idea that there is a logical flaw in how we construct our lives from our present state, allowing ourselves very little room for personal growth and change.

A while ago I wrote about how we are incentivised in daily life “to connect our dots looking forward, to extrapolate our pasts into our futures as if we were unchanging.” I was reflecting there on the fallacies inherent in career thinking, where we are encouraged to plan our entire lives from where we are now. But learning and growing as individuals is precisely the point of our education—were we to come out of university the same person as we began, it seems difficult to see how one was in fact educated. I was questioning why we think about our life’s trajectory as linear, instead of the likely reality that, as Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots of your life looking backwards—and there may, in the end, be no pattern at all.

I also quoted elsewhere a Wall Street Journal article on how experiences studying abroad can change and shape us. There, the authors stated that

“Concrete, defined plans for life are abstract because they are made for a self who is abstract: a future self that you imagine based on a snapshot of yourself now. You are confined to what is in the best interests of the person you happen to be right now—not of the person you will become.”

This was a tangential point to the main one being made in the article, and yet today it is really all I can remember from it. It might be, to some, a truism; and yet for others it might be a statement of fact so blindingly obvious that it had never even been considered.

Today I came across yet another riff on this idea, a different way of putting it that draws out different components. Psychologist Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness is essentially a whole book related in one way or another to this idea, yet Maria Popova of Brainpickings had captured (as she always manages to do) the central few paragraphs. I want to quote two of these paragraphs in full, as I think they leave a lot to think about, especially for those of us currently being encouraged from all angles to make precisely the mistake that is being warned against.

“The things we do when we expect our lives to continue are naturally and properly different than the things we might do if we expected them to end abruptly… We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements on a putting green, jogging and flossing with some regularity so they can avoid coronaries and gum grafts, enduring dirty diapers and mind-numbing repetitions of The Cat in the Hat so that someday they will have fat-cheeked grandchildren to bounce on their laps. Even plunking down a dollar at the convenience store is an act of charity intended to ensure that the person we are about to become will enjoy the Twinkie we are paying for now. In fact, just about any time we want something — a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger — we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us, honoring our sacrifices as they reap the harvest of our shrewd investment decisions and dietary forbearance.”

“But our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan. Even that person who takes a bite of the Twinkie we purchased a few minutes earlier may make a sour face and accuse us of having bought the wrong snack.”

These ideas are, at their core, talking about the problems with making commitments while young, when one’s self is still unstable. The obvious solution to the need to make decisions now for an unknown future is to delay making commitments to career or work until that self is more stable. But is it ever? And if it is, is that a good thing? Delaying commitments comes with downsides, too. In a class I took last semester with David Brooks we explored the advantages of making commitments while young—where everything can seemingly fall into place, and days are lived with a far greater sense of purpose. David explores these issues of making commitments in his latest book, The Road to Character, pushing strongly the idea that commitments should and must be made early. I wonder how to align this view of life with those views I’ve quoted above, where seeking meaning or making unalterable decisions when you are not yet your “self” seems imprudent.

My final paper for the class ended up being a meditation on Kazuo Ishiguro’s book The Remains of the Day, which raises all sorts of questions (again, another place the theme popped up) about whether and when we should make binding commitments to work or other areas of life in order to avoid wasting our days. My conclusion was, perhaps predictably, to say we need some sort of balance (in the words of a friend, “enlightened fence-sitting”). And that balance, I concluded, should lie in devoting ourselves to a number of things we love, and never solely one’s career.

That at least is the conclusion that my present self decided would be the one most satisfactory to my future self. I could be wrong (apologies, future Michael, if that it the case). But here’s the very point. Some decision must be made, even if that decision is inaction. And, ultimately, what this discussion is good for is in knowing what is actually at stake in these often quotidian-seeming decisions.

“War Minus the Shooting?”: The Olympics, International Sport, and Orwell on the Sporting Spirit

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

The Olympic Games are upon us. Which means, of course, that for a month or so countries will forget their rivalries, jealousies and bitterness and come together to compete in a friendly way to advance world peace and everlasting human health and happiness. Those colourful, shining, interlocking rings are the symbol of the games that will bind humans of all races, faiths, creeds and beliefs closer together through the sporting spirit. Just as in ancient Olympia the Olympics stood for brotherhood and love for one’s opponent, so too next month in Brazil will the world come to be a more peaceful, caring place.

If I came across as sarcastic, that was merely incidental. In 2013 I attended the opening ceremony for the next year’s Winter Olympics at Olympia, and I also visited the Olympics Academy right nearby, a few hundred metres from the ancient track and field. Those at the Academy, as well as those Olympic organisers who spoke before the torch was lit, all used language like I did above. The belief in this vision of the Olympics was real.

But clearly, when I write about what the Olympics is meant to achieve, we sense that something isn’t quite right. George Orwell was someone who saw right through the narrative that sports advance world peace. Following a visit by the USSR’s football team, Orwell was sufficiently frustrated (or perhaps shocked) to pen his thoughts on the ironies of the “sporting spirit”. His brief essay is a damning critique of international sports, presenting almost the opposite to the Olympic narrative, and stemming from belief that nationalism is an unnecessary and dangerous phenomenon.

“I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.”

“Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved, it is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused. Anyone who has played even in a school football match knows this. At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.”

He ends by speculating on where this “sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence” comes from, arguing it comes from changes in lifestyle.

“In a rustic community a boy or young man works off a good deal of his surplus energy by walking, swimming, snowballing, climbing trees, riding horses, and by various sports involving cruelty to animals, such as fishing, cock-fighting and ferreting for rats. In a big town one must indulge in group activities if one wants an outlet for one’s physical strength or for one’s sadistic impulses. Games are taken seriously in London and New York, and they were taken seriously in Rome and Byzantium: in the Middle Ages they were played, and probably played with much physical brutality, but they were not mixed up with politics nor a cause of group hatreds.”

There are times, which Orwell seems not to admit, when a sporting spirit comes through and gives credence to the narrative of sport as in some way advancing a notion of peace. But one reason I like Orwell’s essay, as extreme as it is, is for how it cuts through the rosy gloss we so frequently put on things. It can be all too easy to convince ourselves of a nice-sounding narrative, as we have done about the Olympics and international sport, when even brief thought and reflection could bring us closer to the reality.

That reality is probably somewhere between the Olympics narrative and Orwell’s. There are reasons beyond “group hatred” that explain why we continue to play international sport and contest the Olympics, and I think these reasons have much to do with showing that people are people. Sometimes one country wins, another time another does. In a single Olympics almost all countries will at points feel uplifted and proud, and then disappointed and embarrassed. Countries will swap roles in different events and at different points, and come to see that the range of human emotions are something common—even the bitterness and jealousies. People can come to feel closer even if that closeness comes through seeing their nations pushed apart by rivalry.

It was hard as a spectator, for instance, not to cry as five men of different nationalities crossed the finish line in tears, each for a different reason, in one of the final stages of this year’s Giro d’Italia. Some cried from disappointment, others from happiness, others from injury. They showed that whatever their nationalities, they were human—and they could be injured, overjoyed or dismayed just like anyone else. Cycling reporter Neal Rogers summed it up perfectly, I think, when he said that “Drama isn’t just sport. It’s humanity.”

Two open questions are whether some sports are more prone to being “war minus the shooting” than others, as well as whether these views of sport have changed over the period since Orwell wrote. Clearly some sports, the more physical, seem more inclined to produce violence and negative feelings. But witness the barely-concealed bitterness and open disgust between the American and New Zealand sailing teams following the last America’s Cup—a relatively tame sport if there is such a thing—and even that narrative is complicated.

Let us hope for Orwell to be proven wrong entirely, but it in anticipation of the Olympics it is probably best to escape, to a degree, the fuzzy narrative of world peace that will inevitably be propagated.