A tumultuous week of sport presents the philosopher with a series of powerfully emotive images. The dizzying highs evident on the faces of the Indian cricket team as each of them realises a life-long dream of winning the world cup, in front of a packed crowd in their nation’s largest city; the terrifying lows of an imploding Rory McIlroy as he throws away the best chance that he’s ever likely to get to win arguably the greatest golfing prize going. We’ve all been there (in life I mean, not leading the Masters with one day to play) – well, most of us anyway – as our dreams and ambitions irrevocably slip away from us. For those lucky enough to have avoided that so far, there remains the undeniable certainty that one day they too will lose everything; in the great hospital of life we are all terminal cases, and one day we all must die!
How very bleak this is, and no wonder so many philosophers have felt forced to accept a pessimistic outlook. We live, we strive, we fail, and we die. If we cannot find any hope of something beyond death, then it seems that life is indeed reduced to being little more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. That life is meaningless, or essentially comprised of suffering, is not a new idea, but it is one that is rarely eloquently expressed – the finest expression, in my opinion, to be found in the great works of Arthur Schopenhauer.
We are driven by Will, we strive to satisfy our desires; if we manage to sate one desire, another rises in its place, necessitating further striving. Life continues pointlessly in an endless oscillation between stress and boredom, and we never really win. The life of a professional sportsperson reflects this cyclical and certain defeat. An entire lifetime of striving, of dedication to the improvement of his or her game, culminates in one glorious opportunity to ‘win’ at something, to achieve their aim. If they lose, they are distraught; if they are strong enough to recover (as I’m sure McIlroy will prove to be) then they can treat themselves to further striving in the hope that one day they will ‘win’. If they win (and these are the lucky few), then what is left for them? Either more striving for more winning, or the prospect of a life with no more winning to strive for. Neither prospect is particularly inspiring. We might ask, if the outlook is so bleak, why on earth do they bother?!
Two answers come to mind: Firstly, humans seem to find comfort in the concept of affecting something lasting. As Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death brilliantly outlines, we strive to achieve a symbolic immortality by becoming part of something greater than ourselves. Whether this great thing is society, or perhaps having your name on a trophy, your name and achievements might live on beyond your death, and this seems to confer some worth and meaning on the life lived. Failing that, Albert Camus inspires revolt against the absurdity of life. Like Sisyphus condemned to endlessly repeat a difficult and pointless task, the sportsperson can find something valuable in the striving itself. For Sisyphus, and perhaps for McIlroy, it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts.