Existential Roundup

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The Dutch after the semis. Photo by Jeffrey.Brilman.

Welcome to the Existential Roundup, where we bring you links to some articles currently trending that may be of interest to those in the existential-humanistic psychology community.

To say that being a citizen of the world has grown increasingly difficult over these past few weeks is perhaps among the most ridiculous of understatements. Having just passed the centenary of the beginning of the “War to end all wars,” all we have to do is turn on the television or the computer to see that World War I did absolutely nothing to end war, as it rages on to this very day throughout the world. Thus, the timing seems appropriate to look at some current thinking on the psychology of the collective.

The New York Times published an article entitled “The Problem With Collective Grief: The Dutch Mourn Flight 17’s Victims in Their Own Sober Way,” in which the author, Arnon Grunberg, describes the transition in the Dutch psyche from World Cup fever to the coping with the loss of Flight 17. In this article, translated from Dutch, Grunberg discusses the deliriousness surrounding how far the Netherlands was progressing in World Cup, with heroic victories over Spain, Australia, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Brazil. Then, just days later, Malaysia Air Flight 17, originating in Amsterdam with 193 Dutch nationals on board, is shot down in eastern Ukraine. Grunberg said the mood has grown extremely quiet and sober, and outward expressions of grief have been few—perhaps, he says, this is part of the Dutch psyche. Or perhaps, this is the nature of collective grief:

I recognize the tragedy, I realize that you are mourning, but I can’t mourn along with you, not right now; today’s just not my day. And conversely, when it’s my turn to mourn, I won’t force you to mourn along with me either. (¶ 12)

In keeping with the themes of both soccer and the collective, David Brooks posed a question in his regular column for The New York Times on whether America’s national psyche was one based on baseball or on soccer. As a lifelong baseball fan, who has only had passing flirtations with the game of soccer, I immediately jumped at this article. Brooks was inspired, in turn, by Simon Critchley’s piece in The New York Review of Books entitled “The Ninety Minute Anxiety Dream,” describing Crtichley’s love—obsession?—with soccer.

In Brooks’ article, he proposes that while baseball is a team sport, it is the culmination of many individual accomplishments—good pitching, good hitting, good fielding. Soccer, he says, is completely a team sport, lacking any individual element. Indeed, according to Critchley’s article, individual stars can sometimes ruin teams rather than improve them. Brooks cites Critchley’s idea of soccer as a game about controlling space—that even touching the ball occurs in the context of the structure created around the one with control (temporarily) of the ball. Brooks then extrapolates this to our daily lives—he argues that many of us act as if we are playing baseball—doing our individual tasks and hoping to be noticed for it—while in reality, we are playing soccer—operating in the larger context of other people and other interests and other structures already established. This is actually one of the best nonphilosophical metaphors I have ever heard for Being-in-the-World—how often do we forget that we are in a world with other people and other interests, and our individual actions always impact others whether we want them to or not. In baseball, if we swing and hit a foul ball, our teammates are usually not terribly affected, unless it turns into part of a strikeout. But if we play out of formation in soccer, we are not controlling the space, and thus not controlling the ball, and ceding control, and perhaps the whole game to the other team.

Brooks concludes that once we accept that we are playing soccer and not baseball, our vision broadens tremendously. He says we begin to recognize:

First, awareness of the landscape of reality is the highest form of wisdom. It’s not raw computational power that matters most; it’s having a sensitive attunement to the widest environment, feeling where the flow of events is going. Genius is in practice perceiving more than the conscious reasoning.

Second, predictive models will be less useful. Baseball is wonderful for sabermetricians. In each at bat there is a limited range of possible outcomes. Activities like soccer are not as easily renderable statistically, because the relevant spatial structures are harder to quantify. (¶ 11-12)

He is arguing for paying attention to context. And while I may want to quibble about some of the ways in which baseball can be much more of a team sport and how individual baseball actions do affect the whole, I do fully agree with the point—how many times do we think we our actions are only going to affect us when they really have such are larger impact. As my mother always taught us as little kids in Hebrew School, “Do you know how to create world peace?” she would ask us. We would all stop chattering and look to her for the answer as though she was going to give us the answer to the Riddle of Sphinx. She would look us all straight in the eye and say simply:

“Stop fighting with your brothers and sisters.”

The journey of a 1,000 steps, as they say….


Thanks to Erica Stanton for her research assistance.

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