WCup and our Thoughs

A Brazilian woman I know, who had a heart attack six months ago, recently complained to her doctor that she was having some transient pain and numbness in her left arm. He told her (I’m not making this up) that he would do some exams after the World Cup ended.

That’s hopefully a rare occurrence, but nevertheless, around our house in Brazil we hope that no one will need hospital care until the World Cup is over. When the Brazilian national soccer team plays in a World Cup, everything stops—maybe even the IV drips.

Traffic evaporates from busy streets. Businesses release employees from their responsibilities. Banks close. Petrobras stops pumping oil. The shipping ports halt. Combine harvesters sit idle in soybean fields. Schools let kids go home early. It’s almost as if the only people working are the engineers who keep the hydroelectric dams running and bartenders. After all, without the peak performance of those plants, all the TVs would go dark.

Halting the national economy during Brazil’s World Cup matches is not met with resistance either. Who cares if stock market trading pauses when Kaká and Robinho are trying to score goals? According to Bloomberg and Businessweek, trading in Brazil dropped to its lowest level this year during the World Cup. The lowest levels of trading coincided precisely with the days that Brazil played North Korea, Portugal, Chile and then, most recently, the Netherlands.[1] Now that the Netherlands team has eliminated Brazil, economists expect that the Brazilian market will return to a normal pulse soon. In the meantime, I haven’t heard any complaints about lost profits.

All this has generated a serious debate in Brazil. Should passion for a sport justify the complete shut-down of work and commerce? Some Brazilians I know say that putting the nation in neutral is entirely justified. After all, the World Cup is not just a sport—it’s part of the Brazilian soul and culture. The World Cup only happens once every four years, so why not allow people to enjoy the event to the hilt?

But others think that shutting the nation down to watch soccer is ludicrous and irresponsible. It’s only a game, they say. There is no real substance under all the emotional froth that’s whipped up by the media. The fact that soccer has become such an important part of the Brazilian DNA is precisely the problem, they argue. Why base so much of the national identity on something that they deem to be so superficial? These people are generally glad that Brazil has been eliminated; now, they say, everyone can set the beer aside and get back to work!

Frankly, I’m in favor of allowing people to take time off work to watch the games, except for the cardiologists needed to treat women with chest pains. But perhaps both sides of the debate are missing the deeper meaning in this story.

I recently read some writings by scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who is considered to be the grandfather of the computer for inventing a calculating machine. Pascal, who was a Christian, wrote a still-relevant essay in the mid-1600s about the human tendency to pursue busyness as a means of avoiding thoughts about our human condition. The problem, he says, is not taking time off to have fun and enjoy life; the problem arises when we believe that entertaining diversions will actually satisfy our souls.

“If our condition were truly happy we should not need to divert ourselves from it,” he wrote. But because we fail to find true inner joy, “The only good thing for men, therefore, is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion. . . .  Thus men who are naturally conscious of what they are shun nothing so much as rest; they would do anything to be disturbed.”

Pascal recognized the fallacy of such an approach to life, but he did not write judgmentally. “. . . It is wrong then to blame [people]; they are not wrong to want excitement . . . The trouble is that they want it as though, once they had the things they seek, they could not fail to be truly happy.” [2]

What Pascal wrote about 400 years ago still rings true today. We moderns and post-moderns have not changed much. We have invented so many diversions that we need diversions from our diversions. And yet we are still unsettled, discontent, and restless.

Soon after the last whistle blew at the end of Brazil’s match against the Netherlands, a whistle that sealed Brazil’s elimination from the World Cup, there was a deathly silence in my city, as if it had become a ghost town. The bubble of excitement and hope had popped, and there didn’t seem to be much of anything else to sustain the people here. Then, within an hour, the streets filled with cars and motorcycles, and employees returned to their jobs, all trying to press on in life.
I wondered if anyone was finding true satisfaction for their souls. And I thought about Jesus, who said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” With that kind of life in the storehouse, the World Cup is even more enjoyable—even when Brazil loses.