March 24, 2009 by Tim Little
The Major League Baseball season gets under way — finally! — in less than a week, which undoubtedly prompted a very interesting article in the Boston Globe: “A Brief Inquiry into the Nature of Sports Fandom.” The author takes a lighthearted jab at diehard sports fans — himself included, apparently — concluding that “If you actually care deeply about your team, you are probably wrong.” The issue, it seems, hinges on “an ancient philosophical problem, that of identity over time.”
Very much back in the day, Theseus was the mythical king of Athens. And among his many possessions, he had a ship that he used to return from slaying the Minotaur. After his death, this ship was preserved for hundreds of years in the harbor of Athens. Or was it? Whenever a wooden plank rotted out, it was replaced. If a beam fell apart, a new one was fashioned in its stead. After enough time had passed, every part had been replaced. So now it was a boat that looked very much like the ship of Theseus, and occupied the same spot in the harbor, but not a single piece of it had existed when Theseus sailed. Essentially, it was a replica. And yet people persisted in referring to this ship as the ship of Theseus. In philosophy, this problem of identity has become known as the Ship of Theseus paradox.
To make the analogy abundantly clear: sports teams change from year to year. These days, they change a lot. You might hold a great attachment to the 2004 Red Sox World Series champions, but only around 10 percent of this year’s roster consists of players from that team (actual fact!). And if you have been rooting for the Sox for more than 14 years, you’re rooting for a fully replaced team – different players are playing the game, different owners get your ticket money. You can see why this is an absurdity. It is in no way the same team, and you are rooting for it out of inertia. You might as well root for any totally different team – the Oakland A’s, the Tokyo Giants. At least you’d be making an informed decision.
Being both philosophically-minded and a long-time Red Sox fan, to me this proposition is — mixing sports metaphors — a bit like his matador waving a red cape in front of my raging bull. However, from a Buddhist view, the Ship of Theseus paradox provides an excellent if inadvertent illustration of the relationship between impermanence (anicca) and non-self (anatta), two of the Three Marks of Existence. (The Third Mark, dukkha — suffering/unsatisfactoriness/disease/lack/etc. — is all too familiar to Red Sox fans!)
Psychologist Mark Epstein, in his article “In Search of No-Self,” cites the classical Buddhist text “The Questions of King Milinda,” in which the sage Nagasena “addresses the problem [of non-self/identity] by asking the king how he travelled.”
“Did you come on foot, or in a carriage?”
“I did not come on foot, reverend sir, I came in a chariot.”
“If your majesty came in a chariot, explain to me what a chariot is,” Nagasena replied, zeroing in on what has become a traditional Buddhist symbol of the self. “Can the chariot-pole be the chariot, O king? Is the axle the chariot? Are the wheels, or the frame, or the banner-staff, or the yoke, or the reins, or the goad, the chariot?” To each of these questions the king responded in the negative. “Then, O king, is the chariot all these parts? Well, O king, is the chariot anything else than these?” Again the king said no. “O king, I ask and ask you, and do not perceive a chariot. Is ‘chariot’ anything but a mere word? What is chariot in this matter?”
By pointing to something so concrete and obvious as the chariot, Nagasena was making a difficult point. The chariot obviously exists. It is more than a mere word, but it exists only in relationship to its parts. In Buddhist terms, we would say it exists as the designation of its parts. In the Buddhist psychology known as Abhidharma, the self that we take to be real, like the chariot of King Milinda, is a similar kind of vehicle. It has a reality but not the intrinsic one we assume through the process of identification. We can see form (the five sense organs and their objects), feelings, perceptions, mental factors, and consciousness, but we would have a hard time putting our finder on “self.”
As it happens, one of my earliest understandings of impermanence came at the time when the Red Sox team with which I had grown up began to lose its star players — Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn… and at one point even the possibility of seeing Sox icon Carl Yastrzemski play for the arch-rival New York Yankees! — through the then-new mechanism of free agency. It be came abudantly clear to me — at age 8 or 9 — that “my team” was always in a state of flux.
Over time I’ve come to understand that it is possible to appreciate the uniqueness of each Red Sox team — from season to season and within a season — without mistaking any particular iteration for an intrinsic identity. The identity of the Red Sox — the particular players, changes to the ownership, the uniform, and even the ballpark — is never static, and that is just the dhamma, the way things are.
This does not mean that it has always been easy to be a Red Sox fan; we seem to have had a particularly intimate relationship with dukkha. I remember exactly where I was for Game 6 of the 1986 World Series between the Red Sox and the New York Mets at the moment the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs. I remember Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series when the Yankees’ Aaron Boone hit the game-winning home run off of Tim Wakefield. I remember the excruciating 1978 single-game playoff loss to the Yankees, too. Certainly the championship drought of 86 years seemed anything but impermanent and anything but impersonal.
Although my relationship to the team was always evolving, when the Red Sox finally did win the World Series in 2004 it allowed some space into my identity as a Sox fan. There was a sense of relaxation, and an opportunity to appreciate the games without being quite so caught up in the emotional rollercoaster of wins and losses. It was okay to let go; in fact, it felt good. And it did nothing to detract from the experience when the 2007 Red Sox — a team with few personnel holdovers from the ’04 season — won another World Series title.
This is not to say I’ve traded in my diehard credentials to become a fair-weather fan. I’ve hardly lost interest. I still care very much about my team. I follow the Sox closely and wish for their continued success. Pitchers’ duels and pennant races still keep my adrenaline flowing. And I could never picture myself rooting for the Marlins or the Rangers or — dare I say? — the Yankees instead. Perhaps its because of my deeper appreciation for impermanence and non-self that my own identity as a Red Sox fan has reached a more mature or nuanced level? It may not be the most rational response, but this Middle Way certainly seems more honest and human. And if being a bit irrational — and caring deeply about the Red Sox — is “wrong,” that’s okay.