I’ve disliked team sports since I was a child. I enjoyed playing them to a degree but watching was always painful. I wondered why I couldn’t have fun as others did; it even bothered me a little. Was is that I didn’t like being around people? Or was it that I was too ambitious and couldn’t work with a team? As I got older, though, I understood that neither of these reasons was true – I love being around people and I’ve never had conflicts with even the most difficult co-workers and bosses.
I simply don’t see eye to eye with the idea of team spirit. I extend the idea of “sticking together” to the world in general and feel it confines me. We stick with “our team,” remain loyal to it even if its ideals clash with ours just because we don’t want to seem disloyal, be perceived as defectors. I’ve seen too much of unevolved, raw human emotion at games – unbridled, untamed, primitive. There are obvious winners and losers, there are no mergers. The world today doesn’t need winners and losers, it needs mergers.
This occurred to me at a game we attended last year. As usual, I turned around to watch the cheering, booing crowd and missed the entire game.
In the expressions of the masses surrounding me I saw triumph and disappointment. I saw glee, heard raucous laughter, felt nerve-wracking hope, sensed the fear of loss. I had seen these exact expressions, a thousand times exaggerated and malignant, many times before. As a reporter I had seen them in the eyes of rioters and mobs-gone-crazy. As a human rights writer I had seen them on the faces of sex offenders, fanatics, terrorists. They had all stood by their beliefs, ideals, religions, and cultures. They had all believed they were right and should win. The basic thought was no different from what I was witnessing at this benign game.
And just like that, I imagined no one was watching the game. Their backs were turned to the field and each one was watching a private screen, conjured by their minds, a person they idolized, loved, followed unquestioningly. The game on the field became irrelevant. What was riveting was seeing how every person in the audience cheered for their own person. I saw Tom Brady, Kapil Dev, John McEnroe. I saw Donald Trump, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin. President Erdogan shook his fist on one screen, Saddam Hussein looked like a joke and harmless compared to Pol Pot. Mahatma Gandhi’s voice was hoarse (he must be still fasting in heaven to save the earth) and Martin Luther King whispered helplessly.
I saw the ripple effects of this mindless support, this “team spirit” – it divided people in the stadium, the city outside, the state, the country, the world. I wondered how, in this day and age, we can define “our team?” What are the limits and boundaries? Are they physical, ideological, personal? What happens when your personal beliefs clash with your team’s? Do we even have beliefs and values anymore that we can call our own? When the world has gotten so small, when cultures, people, and religions are constantly clashing, when the reasons for war are undefined, the battle lines obscure, what do I support?
I felt fearful. I imagined I left the stadium with my husband and kids because I wanted to go home and be safe. Except, when we stepped out everything had changed. While we were watching the game, parking lots had moved, buildings had disappeared, neighborhoods had been razed to the ground. There was a war and everything was mixed up, in total chaos. Bits of skyscrapers were on fire, just a floor or two. The fire didn’t spread, the people below and above carried on with their daily tasks as if nothing was wrong. Except, when the fire died, it left an ugly, gaping hole.
Humanity thronged the streets. Well-dressed men and women walked next to beggars in rags. Arrogant non-believers blew marijuana smoke and copulated openly in front of conservative temple, mosque, and church-goers. An Indian woman wore torn silk pants and a bright new T-shirt that said, “Go, Donald Trump,” little realizing that he was the reason she was on the streets.
Children shrieked, dogs howled, dead birds littered the pavements. A street vendor from Istanbul made kebabs next to a man selling hot dogs. I held my children close, clapping my hands over their eyes to protect them from the ravaged landscape. I didn’t want them to see the bombed temple, the broken mosque. I didn’t want them to see the church in the background, shining with gold that would soon be stolen by wandering urchins, beggars, and riffraff. Smoke filled the air, the pollution was suffocating. There was no peace to be had.
Paul McCartney crooned in the background, “Once There Was a Way to Get Back Homeward,” and I forced my mind to return to the present, to the sports arena where I was still sitting safely with my family. Everything was normal again. The audience’s back wasn’t turned to the field, the personal screens conjured by each mind were gone. But I could focus on the game even less than before; I had understood something that disturbed me deeply.
“Team spirit” with its defined, known, physical boundaries was what was holding us back. It would prevent my children from becoming world citizens, from leaving their comfort zones to experience and embrace new and strange things. They weren’t children, they were the next generation that would inherit the earth and be responsible for holding it together, in peace. How could they do that if they were taught that they had to stick with the values of the past no matter what? If they were taught that they had to establish their identities in a society that was collapsing and whose products they were raised to depend on? If they had to, always, be part of a team?
The question bothered me. How important was it for my children to belong, to have a self-identity, a home?
The answer presented itself to me, unexpectedly, a few months later in Sillustani, Peru, a pre-Incan burial ground 13,000 feet above sea level. I was gazing at the towering tombs of the 11th century Aymaras. They were reflected in the perfect stillness of the lake, through which a blue sky shone. The gigantic Andes, some snowcapped, cast long evening shadows on the tombs. Sillustani is off the beaten track and there were hardly any tourists. The peace and quiet seemed permanent, it had sunk into every blade of grass and stone.
And, just like that, I felt a sudden thawing, melting of my boundaries, physical and mental. I was one with the universe, not just of today but also of the past and future. I realized how insignificant I was and, yet, I understood that how I merged with the world – harmoniously or acrimoniously – would help determine its future.
I was a subatomic particle which, if it didn’t configure itself correctly to hold the atom together, could be responsible for releasing enough energy to destroy the planet completely.
That thought blew me away. It made nonsense of my self-identity, my wish to belong to a place, a team, a people. It didn’t matter whether I was Indian, Indian-American, Indian-Anglophile. It didn’t matter if I was a reporter, a writer, a mother, wife or daughter. Those were the roles assigned to me by the world so I could be part of it, neatly labeled and stashed away. It made me feel finite and vulnerable because my self-identity was dependent on the world.
My sense of self (that moment I felt at one with the world), on the other hand, did not depend on the world outside. It could stand alone and it could merge effortlessly with everything around it. It was self-contained, independent and infinite. It helped me define WHO I was rather than WHAT I was. WHAT I was seemed impossible to establish in a fast-changing, artificial society. WHO I was gave me a conscience and a consciousness.
This realization laid my worries to rest for a while. If I could teach my children to not get caught up in trying to establish their self-identity, define their place in the world, follow a team and, instead, find their sense of self, a strong sense of conscience and consciousness, they would survive. They didn’t have to belong to a team to play small games and win small wars. They needed to merge with the world to win the biggest war of all – a peaceful earth.