Sport is a fertile field for talking about what makes a life worth living.
For example, is a meaningful life also a valuable life? Or is it not rather that a meaningful life presupposes a distinction between more or less valuable ways of spending one’s time?
In his book This Life, the philosopher Martin Hägglund argues that the only thing we humans really have at our disposal is time. Our use of it gives rise to meaning. Those who spend a lot of time on sports, either as athletes, fans, or in connection with work, will no doubt find an abundance of different things meaningful in this regard. But often, people with no interest in sports will think or say that these “crazy sports people” are wasting their time, meaning, they are wasting their lives.
However, I believe that they overlook the fact that a good life is not so much about meaning as it is about value. There is not necessarily a normative element associated with something meaningful. Opinions depend on the desires of the individual, while the normative element is associated with what is valuable.
It is clear that there can be a coincidence between something meaningful and something valuable, but existentially, it is not about living meaningfully versus meaninglessly. Meaningful activities require some degree of autonomy, self-expression, and purpose, but such activities are not necessarily compassionate, generous, or loving.
Meaning is created. For example, by being a part of something, or establishing a relationship with something, meaning arises for the individual in regard to that. And the meaningful becomes valuable in itself is when that from which the meaning and value arises is not the egoistic self, i.e. “me”. A life gains meaning and value by connecting with others or something other than oneself.
I think a lot of people look to sports because they want to be a part of something meaningful, whether it is togetherness, joy, commitment, self-expression, competition, playfulness, etc. This search is both commendable and understandable, as it sometimes gives the individual insight into what really gives life value, that is, what makes life worth living.
In the world of sports, it is rarely the rigid division between winners and losers that is crucial, but the joy of being involved —as a player, fan, or researcher.
In addition, sports also cultivate our capacity to pay attention. For example, this can happen when a cyclist has to be vigilant so as not to crash, or when football fans are so deeply engrossed in a match, with such intensity and passion, that what happens to the players almost happens to them, too. Often, there is an immediate empathic response to the athletes’ suffering and joy—a recent example is when the Danish football player Cristian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest and 9 months later, returned.
What makes sport not only meaningful, but valuable is the fact that a game can never be played without the participation of others. We learn what is valuable from being a part of something bigger, than ourselves.
Finn Janning, PhD, is a philosopher who teaches in Sport Ethics, Sport Psychology and Sport Coaching at Geneva Business School and UIBS in Barcelona, Spain.
First published in The Sport Digest.