Monday 11 March 2013

The Case of the First Domino Tile

By Edmund Lo, S.J.


Sports has an important place in the lives of children. Many begin to participate in some forms of it at a young age. For those who don't have a taste for it, they may nonetheless choose to follow some professional sports team for personal interest or familial reasons, i.e. Daddy likes this team, so I like this team too. Growing up as a sickly boy back in the 1990s, I had no choice but to fall into the latter group. I began to follow a British football club called Manchester United, and have remained a loyal fan ever since. This past Tuesday, Manchester United played against a Spanish football club which has just as much glamour and history, in a colossal match, which saw the opposing team manager claim that the world will stop to witness this clash of titans. As exciting as it sounded, this presented a problem for me.

What was the problem? I had my teaching duties under control; I had spare time that afternoon; I even had a fellow football-fanatic colleague who offered to watch the match with me. Only this problem: I get very passionate about sports, be it watching or playing. I would either be too riled up or too downcast after the game, depending on the outcome. Sometimes I wouldn't be able to even bring myself to read the post-match analysis, or even the box score because I get too emotional over it. My emotions and my subsequent dealings with them would become my focus. It might ruin my day, and potentially my week. In the end, I decided against watching the game.

Some may posit this legitimate question: surely, watching sports and serving the Lord should not conflict with each other!  This enquiry can be expanded to cover other activities or things that we are passionate about. Must we be passion-less while serving the Lord? While they not conflict with each other in theory, it is necessary to bring in the useful context that is reality. The key question is: does my passion prevent me from authentically living my vocation in reality?

In my case, it does. My love for Manchester United does not undo me as a Jesuit (thanks be to God), but it prevents me from being fully available to those whom I serve due to my overly-passionate nature about the game. After picking up the real-life data available about myself, it turns out that my passion for this football club gets in the way of what I am called to be. The Protestant theologian Frederick Buechner once said that vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world's greatest need, and this passion is not a mere enthusiasm about some hobbies, but it has a deeper, more existential meaning. It has to do with who we are as human beings.

In this sense, it is important for us to identify what we are called to be, and St. Ignatius outlined this in the “Principle and Foundation” of the Spiritual Exercises (SE). We are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save our souls, and that everything else that is created on earth serves the purpose of helping us achieve this goal. (SE 23) This is what I like to call “the first domino tile”: when this tile is set in motion, it sets off the actualization of a certain predetermined pattern; the big picture literally falls into place when we get the first tile right.

Therefore, if we care about living out our authentic vocation, we need to pattern our behaviours and ultimately our lives through that first domino tile. Watching a sports game together with friends can be a good source of recreation and bonding, but when I allow it to dominate me, it becomes a hindrance. It misaligns my domino tiles, resulting in a distorted pattern. This is what happened in my case. This goes beyond sporting events and is applicable to everything to which we are attached: TV shows, books, personal relationships, and even chocolate. These things are not good or bad in themselves, but they have the power to either distort or facilitate how our domino tiles are to fall into their proper places. We need to understand how our first domino tile falls in order to understand how to manage the manifestation of our different passions.

This presents a somewhat challenging scenario: neither can we just mindlessly file everything into the “bad” cabinet, nor can we philosophize and say that all these things are simply good in an undiscerning manner. What to do? We should take this challenge as a call for us to be more mature and discerning, so that we do not mistake the gift as the Giver. But the first question that we need to ask ourselves is this: how life-giving is it in light of how my vocation is to manifest in the concrete? How does it affect my first domino tile? This is what determines our directionality. The next step is to learn to pay attention to the consequent consolations and desolations. What kind of fruits were borne as a result? What is the Lord telling us through these real-life data? I reckon that this should provide some worthwhile reflection material for the remainder of the Lenten Season.

Now, if you would excuse me, I need to go and mourn Manchester United's bitter defeat in a reasonable fashion.

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