Meaning

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.

— John Gardner, “The Road to Self-Renewal“, March 1994

“One of the enemies of sound, lifelong motivation is a rather childish conception we have of the kind of concrete, describable goal toward which all of our efforts drive us. We want to believe that there is a point at which we can feel that we have arrived. We want a scoring system that tells us when we’ve piled up enough points to count ourselves successful.
So you scramble and sweat and climb to reach what you thought was the goal. And when you get there, you stand up and look around and chances are you feel a little empty. Maybe more than a little empty.
You wonder whether you climbed the wrong mountain.
But the metaphor is all wrong. Life isn’t a mountain that has a summit. Nor is it—as some suppose—a riddle that has an answer. Nor a game that has a final score.
Life is an endless unfolding and—if we wish it to be—an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.”

— John Gardner, Stanford Commencement Address, June 1991

As a counterpoint to Gardner’s advice, it’s worth reading David Brooks’ New York Times column, “The Problem With Meaning.” David also quotes Gardner, yet disagrees with the use of the term “meaning” by cutting through much of its vacuousness:

“Because it’s based solely on emotion, it’s fleeting. When the sensations of meaningful go away then the cause that once aroused them gets dropped, too. Ennui floods in. Personal crisis follows. There’s no reliable ground.

The philosophy of meaningfulness emerges in a culture in which there is no common moral vocabulary or framework. It emerges amid radical pluralism, when people don’t want to judge each other. Meaningfulness emerges when the fundamental question is, do we feel good?

Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.”

I’m not sure I feel wholly the same as David about meaning. It might be a vacuous term, but that vacuousness stems from the fact that the term encompasses different things for each of us. We do not all find meaning in the same place, and I take that as fact. What I think Gardner manages to capture so well is the sense that though meaning might be different for all of us, it’s crucial that we first break out of the limits on our own minds in how we think about it. If we come to think outside the places we normally look for meaning—a 9-5 job, a weekend hobby, occasional service work—then we are far more likely to make meaning mean something for us.

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.

“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.

The Drama and Humanity of Sport: On Stage 19 of the 2016 Giro d’Italia

“To clarify, drama isn’t just sport. It’s humanity. At least 4 in the top 10 on GC were in tears today. That’s drama.”

— Cycling journalist Neal Rogers on Stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia.

Stage 19 of this year’s Giro d’Italia was when it all blew apart. Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk had been in the maglia rosa, the pink leader’s jersey, for the best part of the week, and had been looking unbeatable. He looked in control, cool and calm, and with a three minute lead over his nearest rival, it was said that “only a crash or major mishap” would keep him from winning the Giro.

Alack, Murphy’s law. The riders crested the first major climb of the day, the Colle dell’Agnello, in heavy mist, entering France from Italy. And then, a major crash and mishap. Kruijswijk misjudged his speed, entered a corner too fast, had his balance wrong, and couldn’t recover. He crashed hard into a bank of ice, flipping over his handlebars and landing heavily. He immediately leapt up, and put his hand to his helmet in disbelief. For the first time in the entire Giro, Kruijswijk looked anything but calm and collected, which was unsurprising after what was a very heavy fall. He struggled to straighten his bike and put his chain back on, eventually managing but having to stop again a few yards later as something was still clearly wrong with the bike. His rivals all passed him and accelerated to build a lead. By the end of the day, Kruijswijk would cross the finish line almost five minutes after his nearest rival on the general classification, losing what had seemed a practically secured maglia rosa.

Was it fair that his rivals took advantage of a crash? Social media was divided on this very point. The consensus seemed to be that this was not so much misfortune as misjudgement. Descending is a part of cycling, a skill like those that had put Kruijswijk in the pink jersey in the first place, and he was found wanting. That’s what bike racing is all about.

Esteban Chaves cried as he crossed the finish line knowing he would wear the pink jersey the next day. Vincenzo Nibali cried as he crossed the line, winning the stage after a few tough days of poor performance. Alejandro Valverde was disappointed as he fell off the podium positions after losing so much time to Nibali. And Ilnur Zakarin, who had been performing wonderfully during the Giro, ended the day in hospital after a brutal crash on a descent.

Such was the drama of a single day’s cycling of a 21-stage grand tour.

Neal Rogers’ tweet above perfectly captured the day. It captured why fans had cried, too, seeing an injured, shaken, embarrassed and oh-so-disappointed Kruijswijk cross the line. He had to ride past thousands of fans on the rest of the day’s stage. There was no hiding for him, and he had to face both Esteban Chaves, the new holder of the maglia rosa after the stage, as well as Vincenzo Nibali, the stage winner and ultimately the Giro winner. Raw emotion all around. These may be incredible athletes, but they have emotions just like anyone else.

That’s why sport grips the imagination in a way that movies seem these days not to. We know the ending of a movie before its done; they are so formulaic and scripted by Hollywood and other industries. In sport, it isn’t over until it’s over. Tears are real, as are the full range of human emotions in a single day—pride and excitement to begin, embarrassment and disappointment to end.

All this, playing out on some of the most beautiful and poignant mountains in the world. The contrast between the beauty and permanence of the landscapes next to the suffering of humans trying to overcome them is what makes this sport a symbol of humanity. It is drama, but in that drama is some central element of being human.