Perhaps This Time, or Next Time, or Soon

Dear Will:

This is a story about soccer (football without hands). But note: This is not a football story.

I first heard about the Brentford Bees at a business dinner in 2003. It was the same night in which I met Monty, a master raconteur who spent the evening entertaining us with stories about his sad-sack, lower division English football team. He recounted tale after tale about how his Bees sustained long periods of incompetence with occasional flashes of pretty-goodness—just enough success to create twinges of hope in the hearts of loyal fans, followed by the inevitable, almost unthinkable pratfall that would remind everyone of the true essence of Brentford. I was not much of a soccer fan at the time, but I found the Bees’ ineptitude irresistible. That very night I decided that Brentford would be my team.

Over the next several years, Monty had to teach me about promotion and relegation, why at the end of every season we seemed to sell off our best players and start over, how it was that we played in League Two which is actually the fourth division of English Football. (You understood that right: My Bees weren’t second-rate; they were fourth-rate.) I learned that Brentford supporters even have a saying—“It’s Brentford, innit?”—a shared bit of understanding that eventually, no matter how much you love them, the Bees will break your heart.

Allow me to illustrate: In the final seconds of the final game of 2013 (against Doncaster Rovers), the Bees had a chance to win the game and the league by converting a last-minute penalty kick. Alas, the ball hit the crossbar and bounced away, and in the scramble that followed Doncaster took the ball to the other end and scored as time expired. Thus the Bees turned near-certain victory into heartbreaking defeat—precisely the sort of thing you should expect if you are going to root for Brentford.

Fast forward to 2019/20. With the help of new ownership and better coaching, the Bees had climbed all the way into the second division (known as the Championship in order to maximize confusion). A victory in either of their last two games would have meant automatic promotion to the Premier League, considered the greatest league in all of football. (By now you should know where this is going.) Of course (of course!), the Bees lost both games and the playoff that followed—their ninth playoff failure in as many tries. Then, within weeks, we sold off our two best players, because, well, it’s Brentford, innit?

Given that fire sale, the 2020/21 season promised more of the same disappointment. A shorter off-season and a condensed schedule resulted in numerous injuries, forcing Brentford to scrap their way through the season with makeshift lineups. In spite of all of that, somehow the Bees pieced together two long unbeaten streaks, even rising briefly to the top of the league table. A late-season dip left us in third place, facing yet another playoff to try to secure promotion to the Premier League. Facing a two-goal deficit in the semi-finals, the Bees mounted an unimaginable comeback, scoring the winning goal with just minutes to play. The following week, Brentford did what their unwavering fans could only have dreamed of, beating Swansea 2-0 in the playoff final to earn their first-ever place in the Premiership. Fans wept openly, not quite believing what had happened to their beloved Bees. After decades of suffering, their faith in the team had finally been rewarded.

But like I said, this is not a football story.

The way I see it, we’re not so different from the Brentford Bees, you and I. We too are full of aspirations and good intentions, but too often our execution falls short. We try (for the most part), but on too many occasions we fail to perform at our best. Carelessness, bad habits, self-destructive behavior—they all get in the way. Repeatedly. As a result, we disappoint those we care about the most. Sometimes we even break their hearts. And yet through all of this fall-shortedness, those who love us never quite give up hope. They may not always like us, but having seen us (on occasion) at our best, they know what’s possible and cling to the notion that our Best Self could become our True Self—if only. Perhaps this time, or next time, or soon, at any rate, we will put it all together, rise above our weaknesses and become who we were meant to be.

This story about football is for all of us who break promises we cannot seem to keep, no matter how hard we try. And it’s also for all of those who believe in us in spite of all the disappointment, who hang with us through failure after failure, who continue to hope against all reason that eventually we will get it right. It’s about the kind of love and commitment that does not waver even though we do. Above all, it’s a reminder that, no matter on which side of disappointment you may find yourself, you should never give up hope that someday your day will come.

PW

Photo: Getty Images

The Ultimate Superpower

Dear Will:

I think just about everybody has fantasized at least once about having superhuman powers. You can test this theory the next time you are with a group of friends and the conversation starts to lag. You’ll fill a good hour (easy) by simply asking: “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” You probably know what your answer would be because you and your friends have already discussed it. Admit it.

There are literally thousands of characters in the Marvel Universe alone, which suggests that there are plenty of powers to choose from, but in my experience, most people select from a very short list. Your conniving, suspicious friends will generally opt for Invisibility so that they can do stuff without getting caught: stealing your vintage Iron Butterfly album, for example, or listening in to find out what you’ve all been saying about them behind their backs (that they’re conniving and suspicious—duh). The jocks will go for Super-strength, because, I guess, it’s cool to pick up heavy stuff and throw it—and also to not get hurt when doing something more obviously practical like, say, trying to run through a wall. Your hyper-motivated, overextended, busy types will generally opt for Teleportation or Super-speed (something like that), the better to get stuff done. (Boring.) Then there are the fun-loving goof-offs who pretty much choose Flight every time, because—hello!flight?

To be honest, I’m not all that interested in those kinds of conventional superpowers. For one thing, they’re kind of played out, ruined for the rest of us by summer blockbusters and CGI. More to the point, it seems like when you’re endowed with Super-strength or Spidey Sense, you have to fight crime and wear spandex. No, thanks.

Me? I’m much more interested in just plain powers. For example, the power to Repel Mosquitoes. Go backpacking in the summer and leave the DEET at home. No more long sleeves on a hot day. No more scratching your welts till they bleed. No bug nets. It would be tremendous.

Or maybe the power to Say the Right Thing. I’m already imbued with the power to Insert Joke Here, which, as you may have observed, is too often associated with the power to Say the Wrong Thing. I’m just looking for a bit of a course correction, in other words. It’s not asking too much, I think.

But if I could choose only one, I would gladly endure the bug bites (well, not gladly) and foot-in-mouth disease if I could just get a small portion of what I think may be the greatest power of them all. I’d go so far as to say that it’s the Ultimate Superpower—a true game-changer if deployed with any degree of scalability. I refer, of course, to the power to Bring Out the Best in Others. I’ve witnessed it in action, and it’s amazing.

In real life it looks something like this:

  1. Hang around humans.
  2. Believe with all your heart that each one is stupendous.
  3. Let them know over and over until they start to believe that it actually might be true.

It’s a logic-defying, gobsmacking, incomprehensible . . . well, superpower. There’s really no other way to describe it. Because see, I’ve hung around humans. And we’re mostly not stupendous. We are full of glaring flaws and hard-to-ignore shortcomings. It’s impossible not to notice. But we have a friend who does this all the time—effortlessly, it seems. She gives you more credit than you deserve (“That’s one of the things I love about you . . .”) and sees you in such favorable light that while sharing a plate of tacos you find yourself yearning to be a better person. It’s as if she can only see your true potential for good, so that somehow, post-tacos, you feel yourself moving closer to that imaginary ideal. Or trying to anyway. It’s the only truly transmittable superpower I’m aware of, and it lifts and inspires everyone around her. Without her even realizing it, I might add. She almost certainly wouldn’t be aware that we’re talking about her right now.

It’s a magnificent, remarkable gift. She makes the world and the people in it better while simply going about her day. Unlike Flight or Invisibility or what-have-you, it’s the sort of superpower that could actually save the world if the rest of us could just figure out how she does it and start using it on each other.

Just think of it. There might not be any crime left to fight—and we wouldn’t even have to wear spandex.  

PW

Photo created by wayhomestudio – www.freepik.com

Check Out My Perpetual Happy Machine

Dear Will:

I cannot deny that sometimes, when I learn that my school’s rivals are losing a game they were expected to win, I have flipped over to their radio feed just to hear their announcers whine about it. I’m not proud to admit that listening to the losers’ consternation has brought me a sort of wicked satisfaction. It’s just one more example of how, even years after her death, I continue to disappoint my mother.

The Germans have a word for this—schadenfreude—which Merriam-Webster defines as “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.” That there’s a word for it suggests pretty clearly that I’m not the only one afflicted with it. And if it’s true that “misery loves company,” then for sure there’s someone reading this right now taking pleasure from my affliction—which provides a sort of elegant symmetry when you think about it. Schadenfreude may also help explain why bad news spreads so much more quickly and widely than good news and why gossiping is so much fun. Perhaps we see schadenfreude as an antidote for envy—albeit one with nasty side-effects. (Ask your doctor if schadenfreude is right for you.)

Here’s a possible side-effect that had not previously occurred to me: A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that Covid-19 news reports in the United States have been significantly more negative than those from sources outside of the US. That negative tilt is apparent in US news outlets from across the political spectrum, and the gap is enormous. Last year, 51% of international news reports about the virus were negative, compared to 87% in the US. Why the difference? Researchers aren’t sure, but their number one theory is this: News outlets are simply giving Americans what they want.

Ouch. The implication is that our national media are more likely to report on a handful of anti-maskers than on the vast majority of good citizens who are masking up to help combat the virus. I guess we would rather read about ICU overload and increasing death tolls than about neighborhood fundraisers and successful vaccine research. If that’s true (and apparently it is), there must be a lot of disappointed mothers out there.

A friend of mine recently asked me: “What’s the opposite of schadenfreude?” The question stopped me short. I had never thought about it. Apparently the Germans do have another word—gluckschmerz—which refers to “pain at another person’s good fortune.” But that’s not what my friend had in mind. He was asking, in all sincerity: What is a word for enjoyment obtained from the enjoyment of others?

It turns out that Buddhists have just such a word—mudita—which is “sympathetic or vicarious joy.” The classic illustration is a parent delighting in the accomplishments of a child. Beyond that I couldn’t tell you, because everything I know about Buddhism I learned from reading The Tao of Pooh, and if mudita was in there, I don’t remember. But I love the idea of cultivating mudita, which Buddhists apparently do. Making a more conscious effort to enjoy the joy of others can only be a good thing, right?

Jesus was neither German nor Buddhist, but I think it’s safe to say that He was a mudita kind of guy. (Schadenfreude? Not so much.) Nevertheless, it seems like we Christians probably spend more energy talking about Jesus suffering for us than about how He celebrates our joy (as surely He does). We often teach the importance of weeping with them that weep; but perhaps we could spend a little more time on the other half of the scripture, “rejoicing with them that do rejoice” (Romans 12:15). Clearly I could use that sermon, in any case. Especially during football season.

If we all started practicing mudita on each other, think of the possibilities. Your happiness would increase my happiness which would, in turn, increase yours. It would be like some sort of Perpetual Happy Machine. As opposed to whatever it is we have now. Wouldn’t that be something? Just thinking about it is making me happier already.

PW