My partner and I broke out of the learned helplessness built up over the last year and a half of COVID craziness and attended a Stanford Women’s basketball game last weekend. It was not a huge risk. Both of us are triple vaccinated and wore masks the entire game. Only vaccinated people were allowed in the arena, and all were required to be masked. Still, it was as an ‘ordinary life’ experience as one can have right now, and it felt amazing. Being in a crowd of humans cheering on a beloved team felt almost normal.
What wasn’t normal was that Stanford, the defending national champions, lost. They lost to a very good team, Texas, which was well coached and played aggressive and stifling defense. Stanford looked stale. They couldn’t seem to get going, turning the ball over over and over and unable to hit the usual plethora of three point shots. I was sad for them, because it definitely put a pall on the ceremony held directly after the game, where the fans who stayed got to witness and celebrate last year’s team.
But this article isn’t about basketball. It was the Texas team’s day, not Stanford’s. It’s over, and I’m sure Tara VanDerveer will use the lessons learned from the game to make her team better.
What surprised me (sort of) was all of the rather harsh judgements that abound, not only about the coach and her decision making, but about 18 to 22 year old kids and how they should be ‘better.’ I’m not judging the fans…they are no more in control of their emotions and thoughts than the kids are in charge of how the game is going to play out. But it is fascinating to watch, especially the rumination about who got to play what position and who couldn’t hit their free throws and who didn’t have the best game of their (short) career.
Why do humans do this? The reactions to the game itself is just a tiny microcosm of how we react to the way life itself plays out. It is one hundred percent, always, without fail, never-not-true that looking back is always much, much more clear than reacting in the moment to what is happening. And when we have feelings that we don’t like (like the sadness when our team loses), it seems to be a human reflex to need to find someone to blame. Someone has to be responsible for life not going the way we wanted it to go. It’s the coach’s fault or that of a particular player if we are talking basketball. But when it is life that goes against our wishes, it is my partner, or my kid, or the President, or the idiotic ‘other’ political party, or the fill-in-the-blank. It is always the ‘other.’
Unless it is perceived that ‘I’ am responsible in some way. Then the feeling is not blame, but instead, guilt. This is an equally futile reaction to something that has already happened and is ‘in the can.’
Why do we blame, either the ‘other’ or ourself? Well I am no expert, nor am I immune to this seemingly reflexive human behavior. But I suspect that ascribing a cause, or a source, that explains a painful experience gives us a semblance of control. If we believe that we ‘know’ what caused something painful, then we probably unconsciously believe that we can prevent it from happening again in the future. Of course, this feels much better than believing that life is just a random unfolding that happens ‘to’ us.
The fallacy is believing in control. This I do think I understand now. I have never once, in 61 years of life, been in complete control of anything I have done. I know this with certainty.
Let’s start with the obvious things: I didn’t control being born in a body with a disease. Heck, I didn’t control being born, period. Nor did I have any say about what family I was born into, nor what country, state or time in history in which I arrived. I never once had a say in how I was conditioned by my family, friends, and educational system to behave in certain ways, to believe in certain things, or value some things over others. I was shaped by all of the experiences that have occurred to me over the years.
I can hear the objections. “But what about free will? Certainly you make decisions about what to do! People can always decide to make a better decision, right?”
Can they? If they could, wouldn’t they have done so? A ‘decision’ is a thought, right? Do you control your thoughts? I don’t, and never have. They simply happen. There is no ‘julie’ in the pilot seat of my brain that says, “Let’s throw her this one. No, no, not that one, this one.” If such a “julie” existed, then why would I ever have anything other than positive thoughts? Why couldn’t I start and stop thinking on a dime? Why wouldn’t I always have brilliant ideas? One thing my meditation training has taught me in no uncertain terms is that I am not in control of my thoughts. Nobody is in control up there. It’s a mad house.
The thoughts I think are usually just repetitious thoughts about the same things, over and over, and most of the time are thoughts that someone else had and then told me. My thoughts have been conditioned by life, in the form of other people. Even the thoughts that I’m spewing out right now via this keyboard have been conditioned by the thinking of others, teachers and meditation masters that for some reason, I have an interest in listening to.
Which brings me to ‘other’ people. If I have never controlled my thoughts, and by extension, my actions, then how can I believe that this is not true of everyone?
Why didn’t Tara play the sophomore point guard? Why didn’t she play any of the fabulous new freshmen? Why couldn’t anyone hit a three point shot? Why did they miss so many free throws? Who freaking knows? How could anyone completely understand all of the falling dominos that led to the outcome of losing to Texas?
But clearly, this idea applies to much more important things than a basketball game. What does it feel like to understand that there really is no ‘controller?’ It is a state of mind that I can only describe as radically free, and amazingly peaceful.