It’s Tourney Time. Even those mostly indifferent to basketball may find themselves drawn into the world of brackets and upsets, last-minute comebacks, buzzer-beaters and shocking defeats. “The NCAAs,” “March Madness” — call it what you want. We need this. Just like we need the World Series and the College Football Playoff, the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup and the Olympics.
“The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” was for decades the tag line of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” the precursor to 24/7 sports broadcasting. And that summed it up. Sports are more than a diversion, more than life lessons. They are our primer for enduring and sometimes thriving but often failing. Hanging on to joy and keeping sorrow at bay is a life skill that goes by a lot of names, but resilience is the best. There is a whole lot of hardship all around us. To curate and conserve the joy we experience is a challenge on the best of days.
Just consider some of the facts of life in America: One in 44 children in the United States are identified as having autism spectrum disorder. About 40 percent of these children are nonverbal, and about 30 percent have an intellectual disability which means an IQ of under 70. To be the parent or sibling of a child with moderate to severe autism is to carry a burden that few outside this world appreciate.
Other diseases cross our collective radar in the form of friends or family stricken with them. Parkinson’s disease afflicts nearly 1 million Americans. A similar number of our fellow citizens are living with multiple sclerosis. ALS, by contrast, is far less prevalent, affecting about 18,000 Americans. This dread malady, commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, usually kills within three years, and the suffering it causes is so acute that we don’t forget those we know who have succumbed to it.
About 6 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, and that number is projected to rise to nearly 13 million by 2050. That’s an epidemic of misery, and I rarely find anyone whose life has not been touched by it. The list goes on. If your burden has not been mentioned, it’s because there’s a word limit to a column.
Aging parents bring most of us into proximity with hardship. My wife and I have been without any parents since 2003. Their deaths — three by long disease; one by a sudden, massive heart attack — taught us that nothing should surprise you and that you have to prepare for sudden tragedy as well as long stretches of suffering. Few escape that reality.
Genuine joy is glimpsed; sorrow and disappointment are endured. The ability to move from appreciation of the fleeting ecstasy to empathy for, and often coping with, the seemingly unbearable is the essence of human resilience. And that emotional flexibility might be growing more difficult.
The explosion of media pulls us into a constant stream of tragedy, while at the same time draining emotional reservoirs. Social media users share marriages and births and celebrations — but hardly a week goes by without the shock of bad news from some corner of our online worlds. Every illness, death, divorce and other assorted despairs reach us via social media. And they should. It is good to know what your friends and family are struggling with. But what even 20 years ago would occasionally come in a call or a family gathering or annual party or even reunions is now a daily deluge of the darknesses others are enduring. If you have a heart, you carry some of that sorrow.
Try for a month to keep track of the pain, to do justice to it all, and you will soon give up. It’s too great an intake of sorrow to manage — especially because there is so little to do about most of it. Comforting pain is an intimate act, ill-matched to the promiscuous connections of social media, where one’s reach far exceeds one’s touch. Dams must be built against the waves of painful news of which we have firsthand knowledge.
The cruelty that is all too common online might be a coping mechanism. Snide and wounding comments — staples of “news” shows that traffic in slams and slanders — could be a way of walling off feeling. The descent from the culture of kindness found in Mayberry to today’s dark forests of “Yellowstone” and “Slow Horses” has been steady, and, if not swift, seemingly complete. The more we hurt inside, the less our culture tolerates of weakness.
Except for sports. Thank God for sports.
The plain, simple, true dramas of sport are little factories of the life-affirming endorphins we crave. They connect us to hope. For example, I listen regularly to podcasts serving my love for the Cleveland Browns, Cavaliers and Guardians and the Ohio State Buckeyes. What are all these pods but IV drips of joy, of hope, and of faith that disappointment is not forever? Others may feel the same way about cooking, exercise — a great book, play or film. These are not just avenues of escape from a loved one’s long corridor of dementia or life greatly complicated by the autism spectrum. They are affirmations that life, for all its pain, is worth living.
Which is why we celebrated the victory of that wonderful underdog, the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights, and grieved at the same time the highly favored Purdue Boilermakers — though many of us could find neither the lowly 16th-seeded school nor the No. 1 seed knocked off on a map. Whether 100 percent celebrating or 100 percent crestfallen, the young players were authentically, totally engaged in life — no dams or walls against their emotions. This is the way we all wish to live, deep down: treating joy and agony honestly and with confidence.
Mark my words: The completed-but-not-yet-released movie “Boys in the Boat” will be a box-office success. Since the book of the same name appeared a decade ago, I’ve recommended it scores and scores of times and have never heard a complaint from a disappointed reader. At its heart is suffering and struggle, endurance and triumph among young athletes and their coaches who endured the Great Depression to strike a blow against Hitler. The rest of their lives, after their season of triumph, appear to have been — as all lives are — mixed bags. But for a few months — intense months of discovery and competition — they learned the lessons all of us need: How to strive, endure, sometimes fail, occasionally triumph in glorious fashion. And then to carry on.
These tourney games are reminders that everyone has a best day and a worst day in every week, a best week and a worst week in every month, a best month and a worst month in every year, and — yes — an “annus horribilis” matched with “My Favorite Year.” (Watch this 1982 masterpiece if you need some joy.) The connected world is drowning us in bad news; young people who will live entirely online need special training to counterbalance that avalanche of misery. They may find it in the passion for sports, which teach us to love winning, to survive losing and to temper our care for both. For when the One Great Scorer comes, as the poet put it, all that matters is how we play the game.