Clippings: Wondering why we do what we do
Monday was the kind of day to make one ask why.
As in, why am I leaving the safety of the office to go to the college gym to play noontime basketball, when I’m pretty sure no one else in his or her right mind will head out in the middle of two feet of snow to do so?
And, once there with only one other guy who made the same marginally sane decision — New Haven winemaker Chris Granstrom — I had time to wonder why I play ball at all.
Chris humored me by discussing the question. Of course, we both like the fact we’re being entertained while we exercise, and we like the guys who play in the noontime game.
But he also said he loved that moment when things went right, when he made a good play. I asked him how that felt, and he described it as “a rush.”
I asked Chris what else he did for fun, and he said he plays guitar. After a little prodding, he agreed the feeling of playing his instrument well pretty closely resembled that of succeeding at basketball.
Now, in the course over the years of writing features on folks who are devoted to particular hobbies or disciplines — painting, marksmanship, wrestling, long-driving in golf, taekwondo, to name a few — I always bring up the question of why they do what they do.
What attracted you to stamp collecting? Why do you keep painting? What is it about target shooting that interested you?
Often interview subjects can’t explain. A typical answer is, “I like the people,” which, of course, isn’t really an answer. You don’t meet your fellow enthusiasts until you’re already doing something.
But sometimes people begin to get at the truth. And usually they sound like Chris. More often than not, they find an activity in which they become totally involved.
Last fall I talked to young Addison painter T.J. Cunningham. He had been in college studying sculpture, but two weeks into his first oil painting class he was alone at night painting a still life of a pear. Cunningham described an epiphany.
“It was just me and the canvas and the pear. I knew then. I don’t know what really marked the moment. I think I felt myself succeeding. I think it was the tip of the iceberg. It was just something I could just explore excellence in for the rest of my life,” Cunningham recalled.
About a month later I met a Ferrisburgh couple, both artists, who were collaborating on depictions of homes. The project started when Judith Rey Versweyveld started becoming obsessed with painting homes; eventually husband Denis made sculptures that she painted.
This is her description of how it began: “I just got carried away with it. I was just making dozens and dozens of these things and these little paintings ... But then I said to Denis I would really love to paint on something three dimensional.”
About three years ago, I spoke to New Haven’s Oakley Clark, then 18, who rides show horses in jumping competitions.
“It’s definitely adrenaline when it’s going well and you’re up there. It’s a lot of fun,” Clark said. “It’s definitely that feeling (of flying) … when you’re over the jump. It’s an adrenaline rush.”
Once people find their calling, they love getting better at it. Otter Valley Union High School wrestler George Mitchell, a three-time state champion, spoke in February about his first year on varsity, when more experienced teammates had the upper hand in practice. But Mitchell said he knew he was improving, and stayed the course.
“You’re always making progress, though. It can be discouraging. But every day you get a little bit closer. One day you might finish a shot on them, and that’s a big thing. And the next day you might finish two,” Mitchell said. “You never get worse, so I don’t know if it’s discouraging. It’s more like motivational when you’re getting beat on.”
In each case, there’s a common thread: “A rush.” “The moment.” “Carried away with it.” “It’s definitely that feeling ... when you’re over that jump.” “One day you might finish a shot.”
And then I think of what I love when I play basketball. The best is that instant when my teammate and I simultaneously realize the back-door cut is there, and he makes the move to the hoop and I bounce the ball past two defenders and he scores a layup.
We as conscious beings are unique in the animal world. We have egos, self-awareness. We constantly think about how we can do things better and improve our surroundings. We also constantly worry, doubt ourselves, second-guess our decisions. Our consciousness is both a blessing and a burden.
Small wonder we like to do things in which we can lose ourselves.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.