Current Affairs

Sadness and Basketball

From our November/December 2019 issue comes a story of love, grief, basketball, and ASS.

Content warning: discussion of suicide and suicidal ideation.

Let me tell you a story about dumb stories. Trivial stories, pointless stories, the kinds of stories that are so self-important yet devoid of substance that you can’t help but think to yourself, “Jesus, who on earth could possibly be dumb enough to enjoy that?” Stories that devour our hours and occupy wide swathes of our brains like molecular squatters, draining away energy from our emotional grids to power what are essentially psychological fidget spinners. Stories about frivolous things, frivolous people, frivolous worlds. Stories that behave like semi-benevolent black holes, sucking us into their infinite emptiness where time and self and the mold under the sink cease to matter.

I would like to suggest that these stories can be much more important—and undeserving of scorn—than we tend to imagine.

My motives here are selfish. You see, I have recently become aware that I, a person who prizes productivity and self-improvement and other Deeply Profound Pursuits, am addicted to a type of dumb story known as “basketball sportswriting.” It’s not uncommon for me to spend several hours a day reading about the Houston Rockets’ defensive woes, or about Ben Simmons, who is so good at playing basketball he was just given a $170 million contract to do so, and yet suffers from the baffling inability to score more than five feet from the hoop. If I had a life coach, they would probably say this is a sub-optimal use of time. It would be hard to argue they were wrong.

Bensimmons Shoot GIF - Bensimmons Shoot FreeThrow GIFs

In my defense, however, I have been extremely sad for the last several months. So sad, in fact, that most of my waking hours have been spent trying to ignore the voice in my head whispering, “Why don’t you kill yourself already? What are you waiting for? What else do you need to see before you admit it’s all hopeless?”

I don’t have good answers to any of those questions. But for some reason they feel a bit less urgent when I’m reading a detailed breakdown of Milwaukee’s pick-and-roll coverage. For a few brief moments, my soul stops screaming, and the sadness doesn’t seem quite so dangerous. 

We all have our own version of basketball sportswriting, an oasis of mind-numbing tranquility to which we retreat when life becomes too hideous and frightening to bear. For purposes of brevity and clarity, let us refer to these things as “anti-sadness stories,” or ASSes. And while we have a (justifiable) tendency to care little for the ASSes of others, I’d like to suggest that developing a compassionate attitude about them is an important thing for us humans to do.

Drag shows, pickup trucks, seasonal home décor, autobiographies of Civil War generals, skincare reviews, dog training tips, Soundcloud rappers, wine—the world is teeming with a seemingly infinite number of ASSes, most of which (on the surface) have next to nothing in common with each other. Yet they all share a number of characteristics:

  1. They come with their own elaborate set of specialized subcultures.
  2. To many non-enthusiasts, they’re trivial to an offensive degree.
  3. Though you could, if you really wanted to, make an argument that they’re Actually Not Trivial At All.
  4. They’re fucking trivial.
  5. Their triviality is what makes them useful for healing.

How do you end up with your personal ASS as opposed to another one? Here’s the bad news: it’s a messy and mysterious process that defies easy explanation; you could spend years in therapy trying to get to the bottom of it without success. Now the good news: the question is irrelevant. It’s not important to understand why Story X relieves your sadness instead of Story Y. What is important is to understand how it does so, and how this same phenomenon is at work in the hearts of those around us.

One bright and cheerful Friday morning last July, I returned home from the grocery store to discover that my marriage was over. The closet was half-empty, the bathroom counter-top was half-cleared, and there was a little note on the table that read, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m leaving and filing for divorce.” It was less than a week before our first anniversary.

I sank into a suicidal depression. The thing about feeling that bad is that it both drains you of your energy and gives you the cat-like ability to not sleep a goddamn wink between sundown and sunrise. According to the nonprofit counseling service Crisis Text Line, the peak time for suicidal thoughts is 6 a.m. In my experience though, it’s really that 1:00 a.m. – 4:00 a.m. window that gets you. In moments like those, your ASS can quite literally be the difference between life and death. After crying for hours one particular night, as I struggled to get our wedding song out of my head, I Googled “scientific study on most successful suicide methods.” Much to my disappointment, the methods I had been considering—jumping from a high building, stepping in front of a bus, swallowing a full bottle of pills—were all more likely to give me non-fatal brain damage than an end to my problems. A shotgun blast to the mouth had the highest “completion rate,” but since I live in a country with fairly strict gun laws, getting my hands on one of those is neither fast nor easy. But hanging did seem like a viable option. I happen to own several dozen feet of strong, sturdy rope.

What happened next is still puzzling to me. I don’t know why I felt an instinctual need to check The Ringer’s NBA blog, or spend the next ten minutes reading about how LeBron James (a player I don’t really like) could be poised to bounce back with the Los Angeles Lakers (a team I don’t really care about). Nor is it clear why I then felt compelled to pore through Magic Johnson’s career statistics, followed by the history of how the SuperSonics came to move from Seattle to Oklahoma City in 2008, then several months’ worth of tweets from ESPN senior writer Zach Lowe.

All I know is that when I woke up the next morning, I was still alive, and the sadness was a little less menacing.

Art by Skutch

When life hands you a divorce, a death, a loss of your job/home/cherished belief, etc., odds are you’ll be told that it’s an opportunity to grow. A chance to take a long, hard look at your life, and realize what is truly important to you. The people who tell you this will, in many cases, be kind, gentle, and genuinely concerned about your well-being. You may sometimes feel guilty about wanting to punch them in the fucking teeth.

The thing about personal growth is that it rarely happens as quickly as others would like. Many of your friends, family members, and colleagues will be quick to lend a hand or a sympathetic ear after a disaster strikes your life. Two or three months later—when you’re still slow to respond to messages, still reluctant to make jokes, still prone to unpredictable bouts of weeping—that list of People Who Care will probably be much shorter. Life goes on, the world keeps moving, with or without your enthusiastic participation.

This is where our insignificant ASSes come in handy. For weeks after my wife left, I was unable to accept the fact that my marriage had collapsed. I was, however, more receptive to the idea that the Golden State Warriors—winners of three out of the last five NBA Finals and widely regarded as the most unstoppable juggernaut in pro sports—were no longer a dynasty following the departure of superstar forward Kevin Durant. Through our ASSes, we can inoculate ourselves against the realities that would overwhelm us if we faced them head-on.

The transitive property of acceptance that ASSes bestow on us can be bewildering to others. A woman who had suffered a miscarriage might, for instance, be expected to read books on loss or grief. Were she to spend her all day streaming Korean dramas instead, some might assume she was in denial. And that could certainly be true! But it could also be true that one of the characters in said K-drama is going through a roughly analogous situation—one that touches on loss and helplessness—without exposing the grieving woman to the fury of pain in her own life. Her “denial” might simply be part of a healing cycle that isn’t proceeding as fast as is convenient for others, but is proceeding nonetheless. That’s the beauty of our ASSes. They keep us connected, however loosely, to life’s ever-changing flow. We need this when time freezes because we’re sad, and we become encased in the amber of our memories. Tortured by the recollections of things we did wrong or didn’t do at all, we risk losing our connection to the present, and to our belief in the possibility of a different future.

Your family and friends, and doctors and therapists, and spiritual guides and podcasts and self-help books will tell you a version of: “Everything changes, that’s the only certain thing about being alive.” And while this is an indisputable truth, it also tends to sound like bullshit. However, perhaps a 1,000 page tome on the history of Soviet tanks would help the message sink in. This may seem like a ridiculous suggestion on the surface. But imagine being an aging mechanic who was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A lecture from Deepak Chopra on the ineffable flow of the universe’s vibrations might not resonate with you. On the other hand, seeing the pathetic and weakly-armored T-26s of 1939 evolve into the mighty panzer-slaying T-34s of the war’s end just might plant the seeds of hope in you again.

Of course, we sometimes use our ASSes to numb ourselves and nothing more. Sometimes denial is just denial, and planting the seed of a helpful idea is not the same as nurturing it into a full-grown epiphany. These are all true and meaningful constraints. But they’re also kind of beside the point. Am I refusing to face reality as I skim box score after box score on my lunch break, my brain barely even registering that Andrew Wiggins is shooting pretty good from 3 this year before zooming on to the next forgettable factoid? Sure. But why do we have to face reality at every breathing moment? To the best of my knowledge, there’s no award for Most Stoic Endurance of Anguish Without Any Attempt at Escape. Facing reality is like chemotherapy—it can be helpful, yes, but also deadly if done to excess.

It should also be said that every ASS will, from time to time, be problematic. For instance, I recently read an article on ex-New York Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis that referred to his refusal to meet with the famously cruel and inept Knicks management as “a blatant act of insubordination.” The piece further suggested that, “When your boss asks for a meeting you have only one option.” Curiously, while the writer found it necessary to criticize Porzingis about his lack of respect for authority, he didn’t deem the rape allegations against the Latvian player worth mentioning, not even in passing, which begs uncomfortable questions about the tendency of sportswriters to ignore athletes’ moral defects so long as they win enough.

Pick an ASS, any ASS, and you can spot similar reasons for criticism. Superhero movies are artistic abominations that serve as Trojan horses for the values of militaristic capitalism. Garden magazines subtly reinforce sexist stereotypes and mindless consumerism. Music reviews are often kind of racist. And while we might differ on any of these specific points—you’d be wrong, but I won’t judge—the underlying premise is indisputable: human beings are flawed and thus so are the stories we tell.

If you’re like me, you probably have more instinctual empathy for some ASSes than others. (And if you’re a leftist, in particular, your sympathies are probably more predictable than you’d like to admit.) Compassion is a tricky value for the left. We’re often exhorted to show more sympathy for people who have already won the cosmic lottery. We’re supposed to imagine how hard it was on now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to have his family hear the allegations against him, or to feel tenderness toward George W. Bush for trying hard at painting. We’re ordered to consider what we would do if Hamas fired rockets into our fortified colonial compounds.

Our alleged humanity gets used against us so often that it’s easy to dismiss many ASSes as irredeemable and, by extension, the people who seek comfort in them. You might, for example, be able to watch a depressed Boomer on the subway read about high-end stereo equipment and convince yourself that their suffering, whatever it might be, is somehow deserved. You can always justify contempt. You can always justify anything. Whether you can live a life of constant judgment without becoming gnarled and toxic inside is another question.

The left is supposed to care about alleviating people’s suffering, rather than dismissing it as a grim and inevitable byproduct of life. I think this means we have a greater responsibility than the rest of the political spectrum to get over ourselves, and fight the urge to accept certain ASSes as more valid than others. I don’t mean to suggest that we should celebrate every conceivable hobby or interest as an esoteric vehicle of healing. Nor should we ignore the very real problems with many of our popular pastimes. “If it makes you happy / it can’t be that bad,” is a great Sheryl Crow lyric, but it’s somewhat lacking as a moral guideline.

I do believe, though, that we should be open to the idea that things that strike us as vapid and stupefying might have meanings we can’t quite grasp; that people who are reading, watching, listening to, talking about, or are otherwise engrossed in those things, might be anguished rather than lazy or dull. They might not be addressing the problem in the most “efficient” way, but they’re doing the best with what they have, and efficency is a hollow god anyway.

So where does this leave us? No number of Power Rankings columns or free agency roundups can stop me from feeling a surge of despair every time I find a note in my ex-wife’s handwriting. When the elevator opens outside my apartment and the cats we raised together run to the door, awaiting the return of a person who is gone forever, the cleverest trade proposals can’t keep my shame and loneliness at bay. I get it—my ASS cannot erase my suffering.

Still, I don’t know where I’d be without it.

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