Monday, July 22, 2013

Tennis as Metaphor

I play tennis. A lot. It's fun to play. It's fantastic exercise. More significantly, I've formed meaningful relationships through tennis. Today, many of my best friends are avid tennis players with various backgrounds, beliefs, and worldviews. If it weren't for tennis, I may never have met these loving, kind, empathetic, fun, and complex people.

Side note: I realize that most of you that read this blog (all 8 of you) probably aren't really into sports, let alone tennis. A few of you may even think that I'm extremely frivolous to write about something as non-consequential as tennis. (I mean, besides golf, what other activity screams "WHITE PRIVILEGE" more than tennis?) As to that, all I can say is that one of the best aspects of the USTA (United States Tennis Association) is their investment in tennis programs that make the sport more accessible for everyone. Yes, racquets and tennis balls still cost money, but you don't have to be a member of a tennis club in order to play regularly in leagues and tournaments, or just for fun.

On a more personal and subconscious level, the reason I play tennis is that it has become a profound spiritual metaphor for my life.

As much as I love tennis, the game frustrates THE HELL out of me. Twelve years ago, I won my first tennis tournament. Little did I know that by the age of 40 I would STILL be trying to win my second one! I tried again these past two weekends.

In the first tournament, 2 weekends ago, I actually did quite well and reached the final, losing to an 18-year-old in 3 sets. However, last weekend I lost in the 1st round and THEN lost in the 1st round of the consolation draw: a very poor result. Both men who beat me were older, in better shape, and had better shots.

Near the end of both matches, I could feel myself disengaging. I felt small, awkward, and humiliated. At the end of the second match, I congratulated my opponent, walked out to a hidden part of the parking lot, and spent a good 15 seconds systematically smashing my racquet against the concrete curb. Then I disgustedly hurled it into some mulch.

When I was working with a therapist, we discussed my tennis game regularly. Our discussions weren't focused on trying to win more matches, but on the dynamics of the interactions on the court as well as the feelings I was experiencing during and after matches.

Tennis is a tool for me to understand some of the more raw emotions that, as a gay-but-closeted evangelical Christian, I was unable to express. Not only was I unable to express these emotions--I was unable to FEEL them. I learned to cope by transforming negative emotions such as anger, shame, fear, and guilt into numbness. (I call it the Emotion Transformation Machine.) I could easily describe this transformed feeling as "hopeless," but it was an anesthetized type of hopelessness. I became familiar and comfortable with the feeling, and preferred it over the "messier" emotions.

Sometimes when I'm playing tennis, I experience the non-transformed emotions so quickly and so acutely that I can't help but feel them. I don’t have time to transform them; at least not right away.

Examples of acute, negative emotions while playing tennis:

  • When I'm playing someone who is just as good as or better than me, I experience fear, anger, and shame.
  • When I'm playing lousy, I experience anger and shame.
  • When I'm playing someone who is a jerk or who have fans that are jerks, I experience anger and shame.
  • When I'm playing someone who isn't very good and/or I'm beating them soundly, I experience guilt.
My therapist encouraged me not to suppress/transform these emotions during a match, but to experiment with them.

I fully admit that when I'm playing a match and I feel the flood of these emotions, the last thing I want to do is experiment. My first instinct is FLIGHT. My coping mechanism, the Emotion Transformation Machine, kicks in. I have a very physical reaction of numbness in my legs. My shoulders droop, and I can barely keep my head up. I can't look my opponent in the eye. People who have seen me play have witnessed this transformation. I am present only as a physical entity--I am completely disengaged from the match and from my opponent.

Not only does this dishonor me, it dishonors my opponent.

When I experience these emotions on the tennis court, I have a unique opportunity. Instead of transforming them, I have the opportunity to identify the emotions, to face them by fully feeling them, and to be fully present on the court. In the few times that I am able to do this, something very profound happens. I realize something at a bone-marrow level:

I am worth fighting for.

At some subconscious level, tennis has become a metaphor for my own life and identity. It is the drama of my own existence that is played out every time I step onto the court. I battle my opponent (and myself) for space. I make a statement saying: "I belong here. I am an individual. You cannot take that away from me." God has created someone who is beautiful, worthwhile, strong, and lovely; someone who is equipped to fight against the dark forces in this world; someone who is able to stand up to oppression in all its forms; someone loved and able to love.

Someone worth fighting for.

For someone who was taught the opposite, these are profound truths indeed. Sometimes, if we are damaged by spiritual abuse or other forms of abuse, we don't have the capability to comprehend these truths. Even if we are told over and over that the lies we've learned to tell ourselves aren't true. That is why there is so much power in a metaphor. It speaks to us at a subconscious level. (It is the same reason that dreams have so much to tell us.)

This life-metaphor has also shown me how important it is to honor one another's anger, especially those who have been damaged by fundamentalism. We are taught to wear masks. We are taught that anger is sinful. We are taught to flee from our own humanity. When we do this, we aren't able to connect with others--love becomes impossible. We are also unable to come to God as we are. We become "whitewashed tombs." Jesus railed against this. He railed against it hard. So did all the prophets. And they always railed against the powerful, unmerciful, and unjust. Specifically, Jesus railed against the religious leaders of the day.

For all these reasons, the tennis court, for me, has become holy ground.

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