Rationality, Inner Peace and Bristol Rovers.

My nephew, a North Londoner I managed to influence enough to grow up a Bristol Rovers fan – giving something back to the common trend of glory hunting Bristolians supporting Arsenal et al with his own unique misery hunt – declined my invitation to accompany me to watch them play Barnet on a recent stormy summer evening. He’s keen but not that keen.

So I sat alone on the incongruously exposed tube train that took me past Barnet’s new ground in Enfield. As the doors opened the torrential rain caused mini floods in the standing areas and I soon found myself out amongst it getting boxer short wet as I strode through the park that led to the ground. To my right I could see the tubes pass where I rode moments ago and behind the sun was visible through the dark clouds and rain so you could look directly at it. This created an dull and eery orange light as if a normally clear bright day had been interrupted by a huge explosion of some kind. At least that is where my imagination took me. It all presented me with a host of bad omens – and yet my spirits were high. I was feeling good about myself and about life. Events on the field would follow… 

I remained in good spirits despite arriving drenched, cold and face to face with a new world of football. The Conference. This was the first time watching my team play in the 5th tier of the football league. The first division of the many layers of leagues requiring the prefix ‘non’ to remind us that despite appearances to the contrary, they’re not really leagues at all.

However I was feeling philosophical about fortunes on the pitch. Happy they may win lose or draw but at least, finally, there would be health, vitality and long term foundation laid toward a better future. I knew this because the club would have had to look itself hard in the mirror and change. I knew this fact in part because I’d heard strong and encouraging words from the new manager. Most importantly I knew this was the case because it had happened at a time when parallel transformations had gone on in my life and, obviously, my life directly correlates to the fortunes of my football club. At that time and as always, me and Bristol Rovers were one of the same, with my own fortunes and well being having a causal link to that of the club and performances on the pitch. Strictly speaking that should mean I am currently in the worst state of my life, at my lowest point and with little hope for the future. That’s not in any way the case but then that’s not how it works. Bare with me. 

My belief in the this causal link between self and club is understandably deemed irrational and sometimes weird when people realise that I genuinely believe it. Yet I’m aware that it both makes no sense and perfect sense at the same time. However much I tell myself it’s nonsense I just can’t stop believing it, deeply. It makes sense to me.

On my recent MA in Anthropology I learnt of a famous anthropologist who spent a huge amount of time in fieldwork studying, in particular, the witchcraft rituals of a particular community. On his return to Oxford, he explained to his colleagues that while he had been in the field he fully believed in the practice and the all superstitions that he had lived with while he was there – they made perfect sense to him in that context. He was ridiculed but it started a debate on the nature of rationality and it’s relativity to the rational paradigms in which we live.

I can relate to that. Maybe Rovers provide me with my own personal rational paradigm. They lost because I got nothing done today. The Stadium plan has fallen through because my love life is all but a lost cause. Team spirit is low because I’m feeling depressed and so forth. There is always a way to make it make sense and though I don’t believe it rationally I feel it to be true, an inescapable emotional reaction and thought process. The Anthropologist insisted that beyond the context of the field he was still the same rationalist he always was. Beyond Bristol Rovers, and some other more common anomalies such as romantic love, I consider myself a rationalist too. Cognition based on ideas of the supernatural or sacred are seemingly ingrained however atheistic we may believe ourselves to be.

Nick Hornby suggests a similar parallel connection in his book Fever Pitch which I remember reading in my teens. I think I then picked up the idea and then ran with it. Mine has always been a very personal connection to my club. Long trips to Bath on my own as a kid (Rovers were exiled to share with Bath City for 10 years). Lonely trips back after defeats. I had a community which I didn’t know too well but became attached to via a shared passion. A team and club that soon became imprinted on my soul.

Anyway at the Barnet match, as the game progressed and the team seemed as hopeless as ever, I disappointed myself by regressing into anger and despair at the state affairs on the pitch. Misery took over and my cheerful philosophy on the longer term view faded as I started to feel the result impact on my personal sense of well being. At the same time I was relieved I still had that relationship that I’d always had – I was still emotionally involved to the point of personal despair.

In Fever Pitch Hornby reckons 90% of the time he spent watching football he felt miserable – and he said that as an Arsenal fan. I would put Rovers support at something more like 99.9%. Still it’s what you sign up for. Add to the mix a belief in your own personal responsibility for the clubs fortunes, the misery is increased still further and beyond the game itself.

Yet I have moved, with age, to a point where such things affect me less and less and I’m far more removed generally from any deep involvement in my teams fortunes.

This brings me to a talk I went to the other weekend on inner peace and ‘discovering your authentic self’ held at the London School of Economics. Beforehand I’d been in conversation with a friend – who had invited me along – about the meditation based organisation that were hosting it. I was skeptical about the quasi religious terms in which they seemed to promote the benefits of meditation. For me there are perfectly good and rational reasons to understand the benefits. So my heebeejeebee radar was on at maximum as we arrived and as I listened to the speech. I’m happy with a friendly greeting but get the shivers when I get those far too enthusiastic for someone that knows nothing about me hellos. Happily it was a fairly calm and down to earth arrival.

I enjoyed it and found a lot of stuff coming up that I had been considering recently plus some new ways of looking at things. However there were a couple of moments when I started to frown at things that were said.

The speaker was responding to a question about how we know when we have inner peace – about how we know when we have found our authentic self – how does it feel? His response was that we wouldn’t feel any emotion when confronted by angry, offensive or badly behaved people. This for me crossed a line between what it is to be human and living with an inner tranquility. No emotion? Controlled and considered ok, but no emotional response at all? I agree we should find our happiness from within but find it  hard to imagine an outside world we are not emotionally affected by.

Next he was asked to clarify on another example of where we take external factors and implant them within ourselves as a key mistake that damages our pursuit of happiness. His example was coffee spilt on a new white carpet – that in our angst we become the carpet and carry it inside as if it is a part of who we really are. I get that and I have certainly spent a lot of time dwelling on mistakes and problems that I could have easily let go of, something I am finding it extremely liberating in overcoming.

However he lost me further when he clarified this by using another example – football. When people watch football they get upset and angry because they take the external – in this case their team – and embody it in themselves, they carry the failures and mistakes inside their sense of self. Hence ensuing fights, anger and hatred (he didn’t mention misery).

From this perspective it’s obvious it’s not so much that I affect the outcomes on the pitch but the outcomes affect me. It’s the other way round. A way round that makes perfect rational sense.

That’s not what lost my approval. What I questioned was whether I be happier if I went to games and maintained a distance, able to accept whatever happened on the pitch without letting it affect my sense of self? Could I not suspend my inner peace, escape my authentic self for 90 minutes and indulge in the roller coaster of the game for its duration at least? Inner peace was described as a flat line of calm but I can’t help feel there will always be times when I want the roller coaster. I don’t want to return to the days when a Rovers defeat would ruin my whole weekend (i.e most weekends) and I’m happy not to carry their story with me beyond the game, but I don’t think I’d be totally happy if I could no longer – irrationally and sacrificing my inner peace – wallow in misery every now and then.

There was something beautifully calm about the almost silent (naff music aside) meditation at the end of the talk, indulged by most of the packed auditorium. I decided not to engage, mainly because the music had put me off, but also because I wanted to just observe for a bit and in a slightly non-conformist way. Looking at everyone with their eyes closed – It made perfect sense this mindset of tranquility and acceptance. Kind of like the final evolutionary point we needed to reach as a species. But it also looked, if I imagined it taken to a totality, as a level of peace so perfect as to feel slightly empty.         

Rovers don’t offer me much in the way of spiritual happiness, but I would be sad to lose them all the same.

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