It has been a week full of emotion in the world of sport. More than usual. First Serena Williams, probably the greatest-ever woman to play tennis, went into meltdown at the US Open Championships. She was outraged, incandescent, at an umpire’s decision or rather at the widespread sexism which she believes underlies it. She lost the final.
A couple of days after, the cricket world was awash in the emotion of the international retirement of the much-loved England cricketer, Alastair Cook. Grown men, commentators, sobbing! A Dutch world cycling champion talked of her fears after a bad crash which has left her paralysed. It’s not the paralysis but the loneliness which it will bring that she fears. There was a plea yesterday for Premier League football clubs to offer their players counselling services as a matter of course because of all the pressure of expectation they are under. We remembered the World Cup in Russia in the summer when a number of England players went public about their struggles with depression.
It is not surprising that elite sports people experience such emotion. They face high levels of expectation, not least their own. The vast majority of them never turn out to be winners. In this week’s round of interviews there were the typical attempts to hide or deny emotion. This week they were remarkably unsuccessful. What is surprising is the new willingness to talk about emotions.
Good sport is like good religion in many ways. Since the apostle Paul wrote about ‘fighting the good fight’ and ‘winning the race’, Christians have often been reminded of the likenesses between the two activities. Many religious people face high levels of expectation, not least their own. The vast majority of us never turn out to be famous. If done seriously rather than just for fun, religion and sport demand practice to develop the skills involved. Both involve high degrees of dedication – long hours of practice, self-denial, self-control, self-knowledge. And there’s teamwork – commitment to a larger group of people.
But we Christians rarely speak much about the emotion involved in our commitments. It’s rare to hear someone admit or acknowledge how they are affected by emotions – their own and those of team-members, supporters and opponents. Among us, emotions are often seen as negative – or at best suspect. They lead to lack of control and conflict. They are messy and unmanageable - especially on committees!
And yet, emotions are simply energy – sometimes positive, sometimes negative. Sometimes constructive, sometimes destructive. They teach us a lot about ourselves and each other – about what really matters to us, about who we are and what we want to achieve.
Our own emotions and those of other people can so often tell us truths. If we are ready to stop and listen carefully to emotions and to ask, ‘What is going on here?’ we can be led to important places. Like the psalmist, we can learn to know our longings – and our longings can lead us to God. Like the prodigal son, down and out in the pigsty, our emotions can lead us ‘to ourselves’.
We will need time and patience and discernment if we are to find the ‘truth in the inward parts’ which emotions offer us. We will need to participate in that risky activity - listening to ourselves and each other – but it’s the only honest way to live. One of our favourite sayings is, ‘The truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable’. Emotional truth might make us miserable first but, our experience is that, eventually, it sets us free.