On Rumi, Letting Go, and Tottenham (or "Doctor Strangeknapp: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spurs")

Michael Regan

Editor's note: This is an old post, bumped up because it's topical.

"The Guest House"
by Rumi, 9th c. AD

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

I'll let you in on a little secret: I take sports way too seriously.

It's understandable, you see. I'm an Indiana basketball fan. My first sporting memory is watching Keith Smart sink "the shot" over Syracuse's Howard Triche to win Indiana their fifth (and most recent) national championship over Syracuse in 1987. I was eleven years old. It left an impression.

From then on, I lived and died with Indiana basketball. Every win sent me into (alternately) euphoria and intense relief. Each loss sent me into depression and anger. In 1993, when Indiana was an Alan Henderson knee injury away from winning the national title (instead losing in the regional final to Kansas), I wouldn't talk to anyone but my parents for three days. My math teacher, himself an IU fan, actually staged an intervention and talked my stupid 16-year old self out of my funk. Years later, the Kelvin Sampson implosion sent me into random fits of rage whenever I'd watch college basketball the first year afterwards.

As a fan, I felt entitled. This should not be happening to my team. MY team.

Then I found Spurs.

Anyone who's followed Tottenham for any length of time, and especially the lifers, knows in their bones the "Tottenham tradition" of disappointment. This team will break your heart, they say. Of course, you never want to believe that. Every season is one of promise. Every season holds the potential for unbridled glory, for unparalleled success. And yet you don't have to look far back to see the disappointment. There's the FA Cup 2nd half collapse vs. 10-man Manchester City. There's the dodgy lasagna. The 2-points-in-eight-matches. This is Spurs. It's the club's modus operandi. Why should we expect anything else?

This season, in particular, has been both exciting and painful. We have watched as the team we have chosen to support went from two heavy defeats to a run of results that is nearly unparalleled in modern Spurs history, and back to relegation form, culminating in a collapse that was described by a football-loving friend of mine as "so, so Tottenham." And, as is typical, I found myself falling back into old fandom patterns. There were times in the past four months where watching a sub-par match put me in such a foul mood that I would end up snapping at my children for no good reason. A Spurs loss would color my opinion of the entire weekend. My kids were starting to notice. "Did Spurs win, Papa?" No, honey. "...Oh."

And that's when I realized that something needed to change. And it wasn't Spurs, couldn't be Spurs. It had to be me.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be learning you out
for some new delight.

While going through some of my old course materials from college recently, I came across a poem, which I have interspersed within this post, by the 9th century Sufi poet, ascetic, and mystic Rumi. Rumi believed that the spirit evolves over time towards what he called "the divine Ego." All matter in the universe behaves in this way. It is the individual's responsibility to journey toward this neo-Platonic perfect ideal and in the process to grow through love, abandon ego, and find Truth. For Rumi it was a profound religious exercise, but the process by which he expressed his philosophy of life applies to the Platonic as well as the Divine. It is the very essence of letting go. The teachings of the Buddha also dictate that the path of enlightenment requires letting things be as they are. Breathe, smile, relax.

This is counter-intuitive to the sports fan. We are programmed to identify with the fortunes of our chosen club. For those of us who identify strongly with this particular tribe, the success or failure of our team's fortunes can ironically have a direct effect on our own personal well-being, even though we personally have absolutely no individual impact on the team directly. It's a cruel paradox.

For me, it was the Norwich match that did it. A match Spurs had to win. A match that Spurs should've won. I'm quite sure I dropped more than a few f-bombs on the Commentariat that day. I was fuming. I must have looked absolutely murderous, because as I turned away from the monitor I caught the eye of my four-year old son who was watching behind me.

He saw my expression. And quailed.

I am not a Sufi mystic. I am not a Buddhist. I'm just a guy who loves his sports teams. It's hard to let go. But in that moment, I did. Breathe. Smile. Relax. I could do that. I had to do that.

I shut the laptop, called the kids, kissed my son on the forehead, and we went outside to play. It was a beautiful spring day.

I'm not giving up on this team. I'm not going to stop caring about this club. I'm also not going to go all Zen on you and start engaging in meaningless platitudes like "it's just a game," because we're sports fans. We all know that's bullshit. We care deeply, or we wouldn't gather daily on this site to enjoy the bon homie of fellow Spurs supporters and engage in that neo-primitive tribalism that defines all sports fandom. But there is a healthy dose of perspective needed here. We can complain and moan about dropping that 10 point gap over the Scum. We can rage over Gareth Bale drifting to the center, about Harry Redknapp not rotating his squad, about 4-FRAAB-1 formations. And it doesn't change the fact that this has been one of the most successful seasons for Tottenham in recent memory. It's easy to lose sight of that. This is a really good team. It's part of what drew me to Spurs in the first place. If I wanted to experience winning all the time, I would've become a United fan. I chose this. And we've still got it pretty darned good.

Cubs fans understand this at some unconscious level. How else would they continue to withstand such crushing disappointment year after year after year? Rumi himself would understand this – he understood culture to be an integral element of the self, albeit one that can present a barrier to more advanced personal development

So I'm not walking away, I'm stepping back from the ledge. I'm welcoming in the visitor at my door, whomever or whatever it is -- success, failure, exultation, disappointment, old friends, strangers. Even those strangers bearing dodgy lasagna. Because while the brink of the precipice entices strong emotions, it isn't until you take a step back that you can truly enjoy the view.

Come on in! I'm brewing some tea. The game just ended -- did you see it?

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

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