Roger Federer, Kinetic Beauty, and the Religious Experience

Written by Philip Walter on Jul 11 at 5:40 pm in bodyweight, hatha yoga, iSPIRITself, itBODYnature

Roger Federer

photo courtesy of Squeaky Knees

On the heels of the great Roger Federer’s recent and utter silencing of any critics, with major championships number 14 and 15 at Roland Garros and the All England Club, I revisited a 2006 New York Times article by David Foster Wallace, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” If you’re a tennis fan in general, a Federer fan specifically, the entire article is worth reading. Its 5 pages are full of astute observations, but there is something said in the first several paragraphs I found incredibly interesting on this particular reading. I thought I might comment on it in this blog entry.

Wallace asserts, “high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.” It’s not that courage is the object or purpose of war. Obviously, conquering the enemy is the goal, but the courageous tend to rise to the top. You might say, courage in war is often rewarded with victory. Likewise, in the uppermost tiers of competitive sport, it seems, beauty is often rewarded with victory.

This might seem a strange statement since most sports fans flock around their big-screen televisions with thoughts of beauty far from the fronts of their minds. However, what we’re talking about here is, as Wallace pointed out in his essay, “beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty.” He goes on to say,

“Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”

When I first read this observation, I found it strikingly astute. In his footnote to this remark, he really hits home the idea, right out of Becker and even Kierkegaard, that there’s something truly frustrating and even grotesquely unfair about being a self-conscious being looking out from the vantage point of a human body. But even just witnessing world-class sport can suspend this frustration. According to Wallace, the elite athletes of the world “seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot.”

YES … YES! That’s what I’m talking about! Those dreams are critical.

It’s been right there under my nose this whole time – the resounding reason I eagerly continue to watch world-class athletic competition of all kinds – tennis, basketball, golf, gymnastics, dancing, among others. The power, grace and precision with which these athletes move serve as reminders that the human body can indeed be a vehicle for sublime experience. Why is this important, you might ask?

We are in the modern West, surrounded by messages of physical frailty. Speaking as an American, health care costs are hemorrhaging out of control, waistlines beyond the age of 25 are expanding as steadily as Roger Federer’s trophy case, and it seems joint pain and other discomforts are an accepted part of aging beyond 40. But it’s not just here in the states.

The reality of physical mortality is a cruel condition all human beings must confront. We all will one day make our way, some more reluctantly than others, to our organic homes in the crust of Earth.

Yet in spite of our impending doom, the human spirit remains somehow untouched. It manages to persevere in the face of the daunting discouragement of death. The spiritual experience often happens in spite of the body, in spite of our physical circumstances, but this level of euphoria can be brought about by the body, through the body, specifically through the beauty and sovereignty of movement displayed by the world’s greatest athletes.

This reconciliation is crucial. We must find some peace in the fact that our limitless imaginations, our boundless intellects, are utterly bound to the fate of our sorely limited physical bodies. Athletes like Roger Federer remind us that, while we may never move like he does, somebody actually cracked the code. He reminds us in his fleeting moments of brilliance that the human spirit can inspire the human body to greater heights than we ever imagined, just as the human body, with its kinetic beauty can inspire the human spirit. For this reminder we all owe Roger Federer and the other elite athletes of the world a huge, humble Thank You!

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