Yesterday morning, my twelve year old son and I rose before the sun. We went to synagogue to say our morning prayers, then came home to don our long johns and several layers of cold-weather gear. We drove ten minutes to the outskirts of the city, parked the car and began our three mile walk to the Parkway and the Art Museum where the Eagles Super Bowl Parade would culminate later in the day.
It was just after 9 a.m. when we reached the end of West River Drive and emerged into a vast sea of green that had already assembled at the base of the steps that Rocky had made famous. The sub-freezing temperature had kept no one away, and many of the four million who would eventually congregate had already arrived and claimed their places. The sun was bright in the cloudless sky, and the smell in the air made it clear that many of the attendees were not only wearing green, but were smoking green as well. “What’s that smell,“ my son asked me, and I told him that it wasn’t AstroTurf.
But while every one of us there was intoxicated by something potent in the air, the high that swept through the crowd for the next 8 hours was not induced by smoke or vapor or oil. From the die-hard Eagles faithful (like my son who could tell you every player and every stat since he was 8) to the bandwagon fans (and all those somewhere in the middle like me), each of us was engulfed in a wave of pride and elation that didn’t distinguish or exclude. We were all welcome and included in that green sea – every race, creed, and color, regardless of your socioeconomic status, whatever your political affiliation, no matter who you voted for or what you think about the Nunes memo.
Must be a powerful drug that is capable of uniting such a diverse population in this day and age. How do we get some more of that and maybe slip it into the water supply across the country?!
In his recent and timely best-seller The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Moral Psychologist Jonathan Haidt discusses the “hive switch” that can be activated to transform human beings from self-interested Darwinian primates to communal beings who transcend themselves in the elated experience of the greater whole. We are 90% ape, Haidt contends, but 10%like bees who can become subsumed in the synthesis of the hive.
This inclination and potential to move beyond oneself and to be swept up in something larger can be seen throughout human history, Haidt explains. As early man evolved and began to recognize the value of cooperation in activities like hunting large prey or protecting the tribe from dangerous predators or competing tribes, rituals proliferated to foster a transcendence of the self and a feeling for the group. Intoxicants like peyote and ayahuasca were used in many native cultures, ecstatic dance produced a similar effect in many tribal communities, as well as other rituals like group hunts or communal harvest festivals.
In modern times, this “hive switch” is activated in a variety of contexts and manners. Haidt discusses the drilling and marching of soldiers in the armed forces, which serve not only to train skills and increase fitness, but also, and perhaps primarily, to engender a sense of the unit over the individual. One’s willingness to die for his comrades and his compatriots is a function of his/her hive switch activation. It is not simply a sense of duty, Haidt quotes soldiers reporting, but a sense of meaning and belonging, a realization that the best part of each of us is that which we share with, and offer to, each other.
In modern civilian life, Haidt identifies the hive switch in things as diverse as rave culture (drug-fueled techno dance parties) , corporate team-building tactics, and various mainstream religious rituals. In addition to these, one of the most common and effective means of group formation and coalescence is - and here we wind our way back to the Art Museum and the Eagles Superbowl Parade - sports.
Haidt discusses his experience of football games at UVA where he taught. I can tell you stories of my days at the University of Michigan where 104,000 of us would pack into the largest stadium in America to root on our Wolverines. Undoubtedly most, if not all, of us have either played on a team or rooted for a team and have experienced a passionate connection to something that in truth has very little bearing on our personal well-being.
Why do we give so much of our attention and energy to something that impacts us so little in actuality? Why do Eagles fans “bleed green”? Why did four million of us withstand hours in the freezing cold yesterday simply to see the players wave as they drove by and offer us their thanks for our devotion from the Rocky steps?
We can scoff at such things. We can brush off sports as diversions, and deride those who devote so much time and passion to a silly game. But that would be missing the point – firstly that life is full of burdens and responsibilities and we are all entitled to outlets that provide us joy and release. And secondly that we are all looking for an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to experience that sense of belonging and fraternity that takes us beyond our individual concerns and into a more communal and expansive space.
The beauty of yesterday was manifold. First, that a team of underdogs came together, worked their arses off, won against all odds, and brought the national championship home to a city that had been waiting for it for 52 years. Second, that a city as diverse and often divided as Philadelphia could live up to its namesake and display incredible brotherly (and sisterly) love for all of its members no matter what part of the city they’re from.
In these divisive times in America, Philly has provided us a ray of hope and a reminder that though we may differ, we are all ultimately on the same team.
As the Super Bowl celebrations end and the Olympics begin, we can revel in the spirit of friendly competition, in the display of great talent, and the fruition of hard work. But most of all we can hope that our hive switches will be triggered and we will all become aware that life need not be a solitary battle of the fittest or a game of winners and losers. Life is lived best, and the game is ultimately won, when we can work together and find a way for all of us to win.
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