Transcendence with The Boys in the Boat


Transcendence with The Boys in the Boat

Harmonizing the Team and the Individual

(Reposted from Psychology Today)

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown is a terrific underdog story about how the University of Washington crew team became national champions and eventually Olympic gold medal winners in 1936. I’m sure there will be a movie, but for now don’t miss the book. The storytelling is so good that the reader is held in suspense despite knowing the ending.

The Boys in the Boat plays out the drama and difficulty of harmonizing the team and the individual. When his mother died, Joe Rantz was 3 years old when his mother died and his father shipped him Joe off to live with his aunt. After living alone in Canada for several years, Joe’s father returned to the United States, remarried, and invited to live with him and his new wife. But they did not live happily ever after. Joe’s stepmother resented him, and when Joe was 15 the family moved and left Joe behind. Joe had to fend for himself in ways no 15-year-old should. This experience made him resolve not to depend on others whenever possible. Remarkably, Joe succeeded in making his way in the world, developing confidence and self-reliance.

In the athletic realm it would have made sense if Joe had become a runner, depending only on himself for victory. When he entered the University of Washington, however, Joe signed up for the ultimate team sport. He joined crew. Joe’s strength, perseverance, and gritty determination would serve him well, but more importantly he would have to learn how to become part of a larger whole. As Daniel James Brown writes, “What mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them. He had to care about his crew.”

At peak moments, athletes often experience the sense of flow they call being “in the zone.” But whereas an individual basketball player may be in the zone while the rest of his team is not, this does not occur—or is at least not that useful—for an individual rower. The individual must find flow by being in perfect harmony with his teammates. It is at such moments that the boat finds its “swing”—a thing of beauty with a feeling of elation, the kind of thing perhaps also experienced by musicians playing perfectly together. Daniel James Brown captures the beauty of Joe’s crew, writing that, “All were merged into one smoothly working machine; they were, in fact, a poem of motion, a symphony of swinging blades.”

While cruel experience had taught Joe Rantz that ultimately he could only rely on himself, he did not become bitter or angry, nor did he give up on other people. He reflects in the book, “It takes energy to get angry. It eats you up inside. I can’t waste my energy like that and expect to get ahead. When they left, it took everything I had in me just to survive. Now I have to stay focused. I’ve just gotta take care of it myself.”

He may have struggled more than others on the crew team to be part of the larger whole, but ultimately Joe succeeded. And in those moments of perfect synchronicity and “swing” Joe lost sight of himself as a suffering individual and experienced the glory of being part of something greater than himself. Indeed, overcoming separation is a common goal and theme in world religions, whether it is the separation of one person from another, or the separation of the human from the divine. As Buddhism teaches, focus on oneself causes suffering, whereas focus on others can help us overcome our suffering. Being part of something greater than ourselves not only displaces suffering but lifts us up, giving an exultant sense of purpose. As the spiritual guru of the Washington team, George Yeoman Pocock, said, “Where is the spiritual value of rowing? . . . The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole.” This does not mean that individuality is lost, however. As Daniel James Brown writes, “Even as rowers must subsume their often fierce sense of independence and self-reliance, at the same time they must hold true to their individuality, their unique capabilities as oarsmen or oarswomen or, for that matter, as human beings.”

Of course not all of us can row crew, certainly not with the success and swing of Joe Rantz and his Olympic teammates. Still, we can look for transcendent activities. For me, writing gives a sense of flow when it’s going well, but it is nonetheless a solitary activity. For a transcendent group activity I look to philosophical discussion. When the chemistry is just right, my students and I sometimes start to swing, a discussion takes on a life of its own, sparks fly, and we wander down roads less traveled. I wish it happened more often, but the mere possibility excites me as I step into the classroom at the start of each semester.

Transcendence is elusive because individual egos often get in the way. It takes a leap of faith to like (or even love) other people enough to form a larger whole with them. As George Pocock advised Joe Rantz, “If you don’t like some fellow in the boat, Joe, you have to learn to like him. It has to matter to you whether he wins the race, not just whether you do.” This is a tall order, but the payoff seems worth the effort.

William Irwin Copyright 2015

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