Much of life seems to be wrapped around unbridgeable poles--rich and poor, empowered and subjugated, Republican and Democrat, left and right, male and female. If you are one, you can't be the other, and in between lies the tortuous processes of history.
The amateur sportsman or woman tries to buck this ancient system with imprecise notions not so much about winning or losing, but the way you play the game. Platonic ideals are ignored, Vince Lombardi-isms snickered at, and Zen acceptance is the call of the day. We tell ourselves we're in it for the love of the sport. We're just out to have fun. "Nice day," "It's just good to get out," or "Beautiful country, isn't it?" are oft-heard commentaries.
In fact, we're really pretty good at "playing for fun." Plenty of us can feel temporarily satisfied at scoring miles over par with a few good shots to the green; many of us can be elevated by a morning on a pristine trout stream while catching no fish; most of us can play a set of tennis, smack a couple of winners, lose a tiebreaker and happily come back tomorrow for more.
For a while.
Then, those time-proven, mutually excluding polarities exert their pull, and many sportsmen find themselves worrying about performance, who won or lost, how many strokes, points, buckets, goals or runs you got compared to someone else.
Soon, the amateur has wholly surrendered to the idea of successful performance--winning or losing--and the dynamic has drastically changed. "Love of the game" remains a stout precept for getting out there and doing it, but you can tell by the smiling grimace of the losers and how much beer they guzzle afterward that love is far from their minds.
Why? One reason is that pure meaninglessness doesn't fit well with human nature, no matter how hard we try to create it. We all crave a time when meaning doesn't matter, when we're freed from the punishing notion that everything is a part of, a relationship to, a "micro" version of something else. No thinking human out to enjoy himself needs a reminder that life is short, death is certain and almost everything we do has consequences.
Religion arose to surround our lives with meaning. Games were created as an island of enjoyable meaninglessness, as antidotes to the larger verities. But human nature being what it is, the thirst for meaning keeps creeping into the heart, and the game becomes not a vacation from the demands of mortality, but a model of them. We're easily led to believe, after a few thrashings at the hands of merciless opponents, that the game \o7 is\f7 life, and that we \o7 are\f7 how we play.
So it's back to the cosmic rock pile again, but with a twist. Though we all might admit that we're helpless against the larger currents of life and death, the sportsman will never admit that he's helpless against this particular opponent. Here's his chance to master fate, captain his own life, however briefly. At the end of the day, getting his sorry butt kicked in a game does little to further his sense of power and autonomy. Thus, in a nutshell, losing hurts.
I can easily trace the evolution of meaninglessness to meaning in my own game of tennis.
What began as a form of controlled aggression and an enjoyment of what physical power I could muster soon turned into a program of trying to do these things "right." Score didn't matter, because I was learning, and I was having fun.
Doing things right was hugely rewarding for a while, until I discovered that so many people did things "wrong" and were quite enjoying themselves at it. Weirdly, they were also beating me a lot, but I told myself winning and losing didn't matter. For months I tried to follow the book, telling myself that the points would come.
The points didn't come. What did come was an odd feeling as I walked onto the court: heart pounding hard, a lightness in the head, a heaviness in the legs and a foggy notion that I should have stayed home. And there, at the end of the match, with the score very lopsided and very much not in my favor, was the drastic confirmation that I'd have been happier if I had!
Last week--two years since beginning the game, in fact--I stood preparing to serve to the ad court against an opponent I was trailing love-40 in the game and 1-5 in the set. That I was getting murdered didn't just matter to me--it mattered, at that time, more than anything else in my entire little world. I began to wonder if there were only two things you could be in life, as in the game--a winner or a loser. What had I done to deserve this? I quickly double-faulted away the set (and the match) and slunk off like a rat from a garbage can. It ruined my day.
Since then, I've played two matches of singles (and gotten killed in both of them) and three sets of doubles (leading my partners into resounding defeat all three times).