Recently, I’ve been researching what makes folks happy in the midst of life’s challenges. Because my husband, Lynn, is in his eighties and still working as a maker of beautiful objects, he became my perfect case study. His creative work makes him happy, but some days are tough because he must invent new ways of accomplishing what seems to be the impossible. During football season, he finds a restorative source of happiness sitting on the sofa watching the skill, teamwork, and fan frenzy that is American football. This past season was no exception, and because of his interest in the games and final 2023 Super Bowl contest, I had an in-depth experience of the value of this sport to a person who never played the game but still appreciates its artfulness.
Coming from an all female household in which games of all kinds were associated with vacations, I have been fascinated by my husband’s interest in and affection for this physically demanding sport. A visual artist and spatial genius, magnificent forms appear, seemingly effortlessly, when he works. He cooks, too, artfully and inventively, and makes clothes and hats, rattles and drums and labyrinths, all without patterns. When he built a non-linear house for folks with whom we’ve become lifelong friends, he did so through creative problem solving in the moment of hearing what this family wanted. He creates and teaches dances, as well, and for more than twenty years we’ve had the deep and wide pleasure of teaching dance together. If all of these interests create a picture of a man more like a jazz musician than a football player, then I’ve described him well.
Even though I do my best to avoid stereotyping people, I confess I’d be surprised to discover Travis Kelce taking ballet lessons, or teaching them. It’s not that big men can’t dance; his magnificent choreography with Patrick Mahomes this season enthralled football’s millions of fans, regardless of first loyalties. Of course big men can dance. It’s just that watching Patrick and Travis during the season and the 2023 Super Bowl made clear that both men use their strength and grace for creating stunning football plays. Surprise is what I used to feel when I witnessed my artistic husband’s interest in watching what at first appeared to me to be more like gladiatorial combat than the artful beauty of a game well played.
What I came to understand over the course of our two decades together is that the solitary artist in Lynn – whose name means deep waters – craves the community that football provides its spectators and its players. Research on team sports, on military units, on firefighters, and on ensemble artistic troupes explores the sense of belonging and comfort such memberships provide. The recent box office success of The Woman King, a story about finding strength and meaning through inclusion in a group, suggests how collectively hungry we are for examples of connection, support, and the vision that makes justice and freedom possible. Whatever our race or gender identifications, Viola Davis in her role as Nanisca inspires the courage and dedication we need to build humane and loving communities of support in spite of the larger unjust and predatory cultures we all share.
As a solitary artist, both by choice and by sensibility, Lynn spends his work days alone, in silence, cultivating his creative responses to the various tasks that come to hand. His Sunday adventures experiencing football through the magic of mirror neurons provide the deep peace that comes with sitting in a crowd focused on One Thing. Such focused attention is a source of peace in and of itself, because it calms the nervous system and engages both hemispheres of the brain. Perhaps because focusing on football plays provides a sense of common humanity, of human endurance and skill, and of life threatening dangers even during the best of times, just as The Woman King does, watching a game becomes a holistic, even holy, experience for many fans.
When Lynn and I facilitate dances together, we are aware of the sacred space we create with dance’s wordless prayers. This sacred space is experienced as a timeless moment that leaves participants feeling connected to the joys of community and deep, somatic peace. Whether people gather to watch a film together, quilt together, dance together, or play football together, we are relieving the isolation that can descend whether we live and work alone or not. This relief is no small thing, since feelings of isolation when ignored or denied lead to the despair that triggers violence against self and others.
I am very grateful for the perspective shifts I’ve experienced because Lynn watches football. I’ve come to admire the relationships of coaches to teams, of players to players, of games to fields and fans. Of course I understand that the game has been taken over by corporations and that corporate commercialism is fueling the over consumption that leads social inequities and environmental degradation. Still, most of the human beings enjoying the sport remain appreciative of the game’s required individual and team endurance, strategy, grace, and skill. Players often express their gratitude to the community of enthusiasts who brave the rain and the snow and the heat, to say nothing of the deafening bellows of joy and agony, to watch a favoured team work its magic.
During this 2023 season, after catching snippets or entire games, I deepened my appreciation of football. As I reflected on the outpouring of grief and hope inspired by Damar Hamlin’s shocking collapse on the field, I began to see the game in a new light. For many players, coaches, and their fans, football has become a deeply important, even blissful ritual. For these committed participants, the game becomes a doorway into sacred time and sacred space, that ephemeral place of deep joy and reverence, infinitely more precious because the moments, the games, and the seasons do not last.
I’m thankful to have witnessed football’s ability to inspire feelings of connection and joy, those bliss-filled experiences Abraham Maslow described as “Peak.” Feeling connected to self and others despite life’s inevitable tragedies provides hope and healing for body and spirit. In the end, it isn’t so much the winning or losing. It’s about being present, with others, and feeling the connection Presence inspires.
Until next time