July 17, 2015
The beginning of the 2015 Tour de France and the completion of the 2015 Women’s World Cup introduces questions of the interplay between ego and experience. How does one become more than proficient, become expert, at a specific skill without elevating the ego beyond reasonable bounds? What would a reasonable boost in ego be? What is the purpose or role of the ego? Do we need it in order to achieve success? And what happens if our ego takes a real blow?
Francis Bacon defines success as progress. He states, “[T]he good of advancement is greater than good of simple preservation”. In other words, experience leads to some boost of ego that necessarily coincides with success. Each success must build upon one another until a body of knowledge is formed. The accumulation of failure and success crystalizes into a body of knowledge. Knowledge, then, is transmitted only by those confident enough in their accuracy to abide by it, demonstrate it and/or teach it.
Sports activities offer an easy entrance into the idea of experience. The rigorous training schedule alone creates incredible demands on the psychological system. Competitions, then, are the testing grounds of learned experience and skills. But to what end, one might ask, do athletes pursue sport? Is it purely for enjoyment, some internal self-fulfillment? A happiness of sorts? Respect? Greatness? In “Sleep and Poetry”, Keats addresses the idea of attaining a lofty goal. The narrator desires to reach an ultimate poetic height and ‘look upon the face of Poesy’. In the poem, the narrator-poet finally rests from his gruelling tasks and states, “For sweet relief I’ll dwell/ on humbler thoughts”. This line introduces a key element of success: humility. Keats suggests that there is a point at which we ask too much of our human form and seek beyond our limits. If we believe ourselves capable of greatness, if we seek to pursue immortality in some form or other, in the perfection of even the smallest skill, then we must also balance our attempts with some form of humility.
The idea of humility also arises in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Lady Macbeth desires fortune and fame beyond her reach, beyond human reach. She convinces her husband (who did not take much convincing) that he is just the man destined for this immortal purpose. Shakespeare’s unnatural portrayal of her desires shows that her ego has reached beyond normal, appropriate bounds. She says, “Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here/ And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty!” Her ego drives a belief in herself that is unnatural, imbalanced and inhuman. As a result, she plots a number of murders to ensure that Macbeth be crowned king.
When Mortimer Adler explains the divisions of experience, he mentions that experience is of two natures: practical and artistic. He says, “In this connection experience is called practical, both because it is the result of practice and because it is a means to be used in directing action. But it is also praised for the opposite reason – as something to be enjoyed for its own sake, serving no end beyond itself unless it be the enrichment of life by the widest variety of experiences”. In athletics, we find both types of experience: both the practical which tests limits of human muscle and ability, as well as artistic, that which serves as hobby. Each athlete must gain confidence in their abilities in order to succeed, and continue the pursuit. Similar to other ventures in life, humans demand a balance between challenge and success in order to maintain interest and stay focused. The balance necessary might just involve a closer look at humility.
There is much to be learned from an athlete’s pursuit of perfection. Athletes experiment with their own bodies, as if at play with the laws of physics, in order to push the envelope. Additionally, they repeat demanding, and oftentimes dangerous, skills, memorizing the path to success as tracked through empirical data gained by bodies moving through space. Niels Bohr once said, “[W]hat we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning…that in the drama of existence we are ourselves both players and spectators”. It seems that there is always a big event to observe. There is much to be learned from those who have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of perfection.
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