Why We Care So Much

Flores Salicis is a die hard Colts fan.  She was at the game Sunday, and shared with me how crushed she was.  I commiserated and asked, “Why do we care so much?”  This is her eloquent and beautiful response. On Thanksgiving, we, a blessed and rich people, show our gratitude for all the goodness in our lives.  Though it doesn’t compare to the joy of our families and the great freedoms we enjoy, it’s ok to thank God for football too. Please read this.  I hope it’s as big a blessing to you as it was to me

Why do we care so much?  Nate asked the question, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  In so many ways it is pertinent to my experience at Gillette.

It’s a question I’ve been asked many times in my life.  I’m a sports fan who was the only child of two parents who could mildly be termed as extremely disinterested in sports.  I made it onto a competitive gymnastics team when I was younger only to have my mom decide I would be too tall to be many good – I was 5′ at the time and would ever only reach 5’2.  I later realized she just was tired of the time it took to drive me to practices, and her main motivation in enrolling me was the basic ballet we were taught. She was convinced ballet would teach me a graceful posture that would give me a competitive advantage later in life during college/job interviews. Once I had learned enough ballet, there was little point in me staying on in gymnastics.

Most of my friends growing up were children of my parents’ friends: children who did sports for college resumes.  We were all groomed as the classic overachieving Asian children and sports fandoms were a foreign frivolity.

To this day, my parents do not understand how I became a sports fan.  To this day, they do not understand why I am one.  Nor do many of my childhood friends.  My friends laugh and find it an amusing quirk.  My parents are baffled and often times concerned.  After every heartbreaking loss – the time my dad dragged me away from shaking and hitting the TV in frustration as the Pacers fell to the Bulls in game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, when I was so depressed after this past Super Bowl I wouldn’t answer my phone for a month, to yesterday when I exercised all the self-control I’ve learned over the years to shut myself down emotionally so they wouldn’t see me cry because they would not understand and that moment I did not want to – I could not bear to – hear them ask, why do you care so much? 

Get over it, it’s just a game.  It’s not like it really means anything.

I can’t answer for all sports fans.  It’s taken a lot of thought just to try to begin understanding why it matters to me.

I know the reasons I care my parents will never ever understand.  They grew up in the Cultural Revolution in China without TVs, without a cultural  context of cheering on sports figures.  The larger than life heroes were politically constructed figures who in reality jailed and eventually (directly or indirectly) murdered their fathers.  They damaged my parents’ lives in terrible ways.  Like so many Chinese, they grew up without stars or heroes, only villains.  Perhaps it is easy to see why for them, for so many of their generation, they don’t understand emotional attachment to anyone who is not “one of your own”:  your family, your friends who have grown up with you and might as well be family.  Everyone else is not worth your concern; you’re just trying to survive, to keep your family alive.  And at any moment anyone on the outside could try to screw you over.  To drive home a chilling point: in China my relatives have seen people toppled to the ground dying in hit and run accidents with witnesses standing by and yet no one phoning for an ambulance.  They have seen someone once doing so in Shanghai.  The man was arrested on this rationale: no one who was not personally involved in the incident would make such an effort, and since he was not related to the injured woman, he must be the culprit motivated by guilt.

With such a cultural upbringing, it cannot make sense that I would let a group of 53 people so wholly unconnected to me by blood or personal relationships break my heart, to be so utterly emotionally invested.

 But I am not culturally Chinese.

I have not been since they moved me to Carmel, Indiana and I was this incredibly awkward child not-really-American-yet and not-really-Chinese in a school of nearly all Midwestern-Caucasian kids, my third elementary school in as many grades.  I was horribly lonely and out of place.  The one way I found I could fit in was cheering for the Pacers, cheering for Reggie Miller.  Basketball was a simple enough sport to understand, entertaining enough, and all of a sudden, I had something in common with all my classmates.

It started as just wanting to fit in.  It became so much more.

Heartache, depression, dreams, hopes, shattered in seconds, sleepless nights tossing and turning, replaying what could have been, what almost was.  Every sports fan has experienced those times.  And not just in sports.

I had extremely difficult teenage years.  What compounded it was that a combination a Chinese upbringing that emphasized keeping up appearances (“face-saving”), and my own reserved personality that caused me to suppress everything.  It wasn’t really hard.  I was a top student in a prestigious exam school with two married parents well-respected and active in church and charity work.  I had all the trappings of a blessed life.  Absolutely no one knew how bad things were until I had to be hospitalized twice for suicide attempts, once for nearly 2 months.  I missed an entire term of tenth grade.  My parents managed to mostly hush it up, and to this day, they have not really come to terms with how it all happened.  It’s all fairly distant from me now, and I’ve long made my peace with everything. 

But what I will always remember is that there is nothing quite like despair endured in total loneliness.

There never is that in sports.  No matter how heart-wrenchingly close the loss, how excruciating that moment when one throw is hurried with falls devastatingly off-target, when the ball is brought down just inches short of that critical first down and when we see that season go up in smokes in a single horrible second, we are not alone.  I am not alone.  So many people I have never met face-to-face and know me only by an Internet alias, or people I have met only moments before and perhaps are unlikely to ever meet again, all these people can know and sympathize and feel that same agony.  The human capacity for empathy, for enduring and surviving through shared grief is something I will never take for granted, and that never fails to give me hope. 

Sorrow, as much as joy, was meant to be shared.

Sometimes, my parents remark,”it must be nice to be athletes”…to have so many people throwing money at them and idolizing them, not realizing we mean nothing to them.  Yes, it is not difficult to cynically point out that it is just a job for the players, that for all their on-field heroics, it’s all in the name of a paycheck and whatever emotions they stir in us is just an afterthought.  It’s a completely one-sided relationship.

 Maybe.

 But don’t we all see people every day who hate their jobs, do the bare minimum to get by – or not even that?  At the very least, can we not admire people who will play through dislocated shoulders, broken jaws, fractured fingers, fractured elbows when many of us jump on a cold to get out of work?  I don’t really buy that the paycheck is the only reason they play.  They love the game.  I read an article about Matt Birk, a center who graduated from my alma mater with a degree in Economics. When he graduated, he had a choice: NFL or an investment banking job.  He chose the NFL, and the Vikings and Ravens are very grateful for that, I’m sure.  In the article, he talks about how now just entering his mid-30‘s, he finds it hard to get out of bed in the mornings, as crippled by pain as he is.  He finds it hard to explain to his sons why he can’t play roughhouse with them.  But he knows this is part of the price to play a game he loves, and to make a living doing so.  He has no regrets.

I’ve seen people who chose the other path, finance (not that they had the option of the NFL, but they did have other career choices).  In my year, 40% of the people with my major (or “concentration” as we like to call it) went into finance.  Many of my friends did investment banking.  The salary is hard to turn down as a new graduate.  They have all quit since, most within 2 years.  I’ve seen it suck the soul out of my friends.  Even as they left investment banking one by one, many have merely moved on to other areas of finance, diffident and vaguely or tangibly unhappy but tied to the absurd paycheck.  We – because I too now have been sucked into finance – do not bring joy to millions, nevermind what our firms’ PR say.  Yes, a robust financial system is necessary to a stable nation, but we all know our industry has gone far beyond those fundamentals into far more sinister territory.  We all know this; few of us find much joy or purpose in what we do.  We are really the ones who do no more than perfunctorily work for a paycheck.  There is little chance that anything we do will touch the lives of millions (except on occasion in detrimental fashion).

It was not a given that it economically made sense for Matt to go into the NFL.  He was only a sixth-round draft pick.  The average NFL career is less than 4 years, with risk of horrible injury and yet not being in the NFL long enough to qualify for health benefits.  The pay potential of finance is certainly on par with a sixth-round draft pick and the ceiling surpasses that of a star quarterback’s contract with far fewer physical risks.  He did it because he followed his passion.  And looking around my work place, looking at my friends in finance still, when I watch the players on Sundays, the depth of their emotion tells me: it is more than just a paycheck to them.  And what a joy it is to see people who love their job.

There are many times this season I have wanted to give up.  Piling injuries left us with a shell of a team and a season that has somehow gone horribly awry.  But this team has not quit, and is there a better embodiment of that spirit than yesterday’s game?  Ten and a half minutes left in the quarter, down 17, a full minute less than last year and on top of it all, Peyton was down to one veteran receiver, one of the worst receivers in the league, and a slew of castoffs that no other team in the NFL wanted on the field with him instead of the more usual household names of Dallas Clark, Addai, and Collie  The defense wasn’t any better staffed.  And we almost tasted victory.

My father did not understand how crushing of a loss it was.  He did not understand how improbable of an almost-comeback he just witnessed was.  Which is probably why he did not even say, “Hey, really sorry about that loss” unlike even my hardcore Patriots friends who immediately texted me condolences after the game.  He said, ah, what a bad decision at the end, and don’t be too upset, hey, let’s figure out how to deal with the traffic.  I’m hungry and there’s nian gao at home.

He could not understand what Peyton inspired in us, what he has inspired in us time and time and time again.  Willing victories with every odd stacked against him.  A maligned defense that should be tired, defeated, deflated that still musters up the big stop to give us a fighting chance in the face of all the naysayers who never stop writing them off.

These are the heroics that become the stuff of legends.  These are our modern day myths.  We do not have Homer and Vergil channeling Calliope to bring us songs of Achilles’ wrath or the man who fled Troy and founded Rome, but we have the 2006 AFC Championship game and all the other crazy comebacks.  May I mention here how beautifully this demonstrates how these deeds become the immortal legends that all humans crave?  We need our heroes; we need these men who are larger than life to reach out to all of us and give us in all our disparate paths in life common dreams, common hopes, common pains and yet to touch each of us individually for all kinds of reasons defined by our personal experiences.

I’ve seen up close and grown up with people who grew up without myths, without legends, without heroes.  The inability to empathize with those beyond your own often means in reality, you may not even be able to empathize with those who are your own.  I am so grateful for Reggie Miller.  I am so grateful for the Colts.  I care because they are proof to me of my own shared humanity.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.  God Bless-DZ

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