Friday, June 27, 2008

The Inner Game

I suppose my thinking for this blog has something to do with the fact that I've been watching some of the Wimbledon tennis matches on tv. And, I've been watching as much of the Euro Cup Soccer as I can - where all of the pre-tournament favorites have been knocked out of competition! This has put my mind to thinking about the importance of focus, concentration, positive energy, momentum - all those kinds of things - on performance in sport and, come to think of it, in life generally.

Way back in 1972 a book came on the market called The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey. Athletes in all kinds of sports found Tim's thesis that there are actually two games going on in any competition: the outer game (what observers SEE) and the inner game (what goes on in the mind of each competitor), transformative. And of course there's often a connection. Players can defeat themselves by allowing their mental state to interfere with peak performance. We've all seen it - dramatic shifts in momentum in key hockey games or obvious lapses in concentration in tennis or golf. You can almost see the mind straying from its target. Maybe it begins to think of what success is going to feel like or maybe the mind starts to analyze the "victory" before the competition is over, or maybe the mind begins to doubt the outcome.

A few days ago I heard a report about a study that tested the actual advantage gained by athletes taking so call "performance enhancing drugs" compared with those taking a placebo. The result of the study was that even many of the athletes who were taking the placebo had noticeable improvements in their performance! And just today I heard about a new development in the material used in swimwear and a discussion about the competitive mental advantage that athletes get from having a perceived "edge" when it comes to gear or equipment. It all has to do with the mental side of competition.

So, I'm thinking that this isn't just about sport performance. Who we are as individuals has an awful lot to do with who we THINK we are and with our ability to set and stay true to our goals - whatever they may be. There is an inner game - and we are wise to pay attention to it! Not to reduce relationships to the status of a "game" or to suggst that life itself is simply a "game", but really, it's about perspective.

I also wonder if somehow the fact that many of us live pretty comfortable self-centred lives has made us both mentally and physically "soft". OK - I'm speaking for myself and maybe it doesn't apply to you - but I keep thinking that I am coasting through life and that someday I'm going to realize that I missed LOTS of things along the way. You may notice this theme has cropped up in my postings from time to time!

Let me be more specific and link this to my faith journey. Let's say that I am (or want to be) a fully devoted follower of Christ - a disciple. What's the inner game of discipleship? What kinds of things might distract me from my goal? How can I train myself so that I'm on top of my game ALL the time? I can't help thinking about Peter, one of Jesus' disciples. Scripture and tradition paint him as the impulsive, brash one - a fisherman by trade. On one occasion, for instance, he's said to have stepped out of a boat into turbulent water and actually taken a few steps ON the water before the realization of what he was doing caught up with him and he focussed on the water and the storm - and sank! Don't you wonder what things we might be capable of if we could just keep our inner game in line?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Numbers and elusive "solutions"

I am fascinated by numbers and math. That's not to say that I particularly LIKE math or that I have a mathematical mind. No - I respect math but from a safe distance. In fact, a few years ago I probably would have claimed indifference when it comes to math and numbers, but lately I seem to be drawn to the inevitability of math. Looking back, I think it probably started with the movie A Beautiful Mind, a 2001 Ron Howard film starring Russell Crowe as the brilliant mathematician John Forbes Nash. Then, I started watching the tv series Numb3rs, an FBI detective show based on the application of mathematical principles to solving crimes. Then, it was the book, The DaVinci Code and just a few days ago I watched a movie called Pi, in which Maximillian Cohen, a numbers theorist, searches for a key number that will unlock the universal patterns found in nature.

Way, WAY back, I remember watching an episode of a tv show called A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in which computers were assigned the task of determining the answer to the question of the meaning of life. The answer? 42. That helps a lot, right!

So, here's the thing. math IS everywhere. It's in the beauty of a flower, the sharp angles of a cliff, the rythm of the ocean, the organization of human genes and skeletons. It's in economic transactions and political systems. Math, numbers, geometry, formulas - they describe and ARE the stuff of life on this amazing planet. But, is there life beyond the reaches of math? Or, to put it differently, can we ever reduce life to mathematical propositions and formulas? Can we understand ourselves, the universe, God, the past, the future - through numbers?

Well, I wouldn't be much of a sociologist if I said YES to that question! After all, a fundamental premise of sociology (identified by French sociologist, Emile Durkheim) is that society is equal to MORE than the sum of its parts. In fact, it was Durkheim who posed the question, "how is social order possible?" that really provided the framework for the development of sociology as a distinct social science.

I think it's the unknown factor which intrigues me - it's the elusiveness of solutions, or even of understanding that gives me passion for life and learning. I love watching life unfold - the spectacular dance between reason and faith, certainty and mystery, what is and what may yet be. I love being both spectator and participant in the incredibly complex and multi-faceted reality of life with all of its beauty and absurdity. I love pursuing truth and understanding, even knowing that truth is much too clever to stand still long enough for me to catch it.

I wish the mathematicians and other scientists well in their quest to capture life in an equation or formula. I will contrbute money for medical research so that they can unlock mysteries that are well beyond my own understanding. I will cheer them on with great enthusiasm - for they are most certainly the underdog in their cosmic quest - and it is no doubt very disheartening to be reaching for that elusive goal that is always just beyond your reach.

But as for me, I will revel in the complexity and mystery of life and in the goodness of a God who has given us this amazing gift.

Saturday, June 07, 2008


As I was driving to work the other day I got thinking about life and death and the fact that life is REALLY very fleeting and death can sneak up on us - OR, in the case of those people who die after a "long struggle with cancer" (or some other disease), death can chase you for a long time. I suppose we've all wondered how we'd react if we got the news from our doctor that we had so many weeks or months to live. What would we do differently? How would we prepare ourselves and our friends and family for life without us?

I remember a family vacation we took to Florida when the kids were young - we had a GREAT time but when it was time to come home - back to our regular life - I remember thinking with some amazement that after we leave, all of the activity and wonder of Disney would continue - with a constant shifting of faces and families, Disney WORLD would go on. Maybe it's the same way with death. But what I really want to talk about in this blog is FEAR.

Fear can be a great motivator but it can also be a great inhibitor. Fear of failure drives many people to invest their time and energy into all kinds of things. But fear is complex. It can also prompt people to scurry out of the way of trouble or to avoid situations that might be dangerous, physically or emotionally. Knowing that we can be paralyzed by fear, sometimes we spend our whole lives avoiding situations that might bring the coward in us to the surface.

It bugs me that I'm not a risk taker. I'm cautious. "Err on the side of caution" could be my motto. Why is that, I wonder, and what could I or should I do about it? It seems absurd to think that one option would be to look for risks and throw myself at them. That IS absurd, right? So then I got thinking about all this in the context of the global issues I've been learning and writing about. And it occurs to me that one of the "advantages" of living in THIS part of the world, is that we have all kinds of ways of disguising and hiding from our basic fears. Our affluence can buy us some distance and time from our fears, but - and here's the rub- it can't remove them. They don't go away and every now and then they remind us that we are, in fact, vulnerable and weak.

Think about it. If I lived in some part of the world where simple survival required all or most of my energy - having enough food to eat and enough water to drink and a roof over my head that can withstand even normal weather conditions - in those conditions it seems to me that I'd be pretty well acquainted with my most basic fears. And, maybe I'd learn to deal with fear - to face it head on, rather than hiding from it. Again, not to romanticize the plight of the poor, but just to dig a little deeper...

The decisions I make today - how I think, how I react to the circumstances of my life, how I spend my time, my inner thoughts - all of it, is the result of every day of my life up until today. I am the person I am today because of the decisions and choices I've made in the past. Who I'm becoming is what lies ahead. Ten years from now (if I should live that long!) I'd like to be able to look back and see that I have not spent my time and energy avoiding my fears. Rather, as I look forward to looking back, I hope that I will see that I have lived more courageously in the face of them.

Well - my thoughts are going in a hundred directions as I think about the day ahead. I know that it's all too easy to slip back into old habits - to cruise through life taking the easy path - that very attractive path of least resistance. But seriously, I don't like where that path will take me, so here and now I commit myself to a more intentional life that DOESN'T see erring on the side of caution as the ultimate virtue. I commit to simplicity, generosity, hospitality and justice, wherever they may lead me...