Stoicism and the World Cup

I choose my words carefully because commenting on football is far more dangerous than commenting on politics; there are far more experts, far more offences to be taken, and you are far more likely to be considered a little odd for not following the herd. However, what I have always considered a little strange is the emotional investment people make in something that is so outside of their control; the euphoria they feel when their team is successful and the complete deflation they feel when they lose. If they had some input into this success or failure, if they had some degree of responsibility for it, I could understand their reaction. But on the whole, I just don’t get it. And this response is magnified many times when it comes to an event like the World Cup, and the public mood becomes palpable.

Even though I do not regard myself as a Stoic, a certain aspect of Stoicism, a school of philosophy that started in ancient Greece and became dominant in ancient Rome, I think worthy of consideration. Epictetus, a Greek Stoic and freed slave who ran a thriving school in Nicopolis in the early second century CE, urged his students to ask, of their reaction to events in the world: “’Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’”

Such a sentiment led to their guidance to seek the strength to change the things in life we can change, the resilience to accept with equanimity those things we cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference, a sentiment that later got written into a Christian prayer. Leaving aside the Stoic belief in the power of fate in a highly deterministic universe (not a minor request, I agree, but bear with me), the basic point is: There are many things over which we have absolutely no control, like the inevitability of death, the inevitability of bad weather, and that only one team can win a competition. There are other things that we can have some control over, like our health, our contribution to global warming, and how well we play as part of a team. We should be very concerned about the latter, and be prepared to put a great deal of effort into doing something about the issues. But becoming concerned about the former is just a waste of time that makes us feel bad unnecessarily, and drains the energy we have available to channel into the latter.

The real skill, however, is developing the wisdom to differentiate between the two. I totally accept that the crowd in stadium can lift and encourage their team and have some effect on the outcome of the game, and that therefore the emotional investment made by the crowd through their support will result in some degree of elation or deflation at the result. But the extent to which some supporters allow their support to structure and provide meaning to practically their entire life, and the extent to which passive (non-attending) supporters allow the result of games to so deeply affect their mood, seems to me to be a total waste of emotional energy. Instead, why not become angry at some of the social inequalities that exist, and then become active in doing something about them? Why not emotionally invest in something that can be changed? In something you can have some control over? That is wisdom. And the result of such an investment is well worth being concerned about.

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