Monday, 10 June 2013

Sitting on the Fence in the World Cup - Lessons in Empathy

Every Move You Make

     A few years back I imagined I may be able to Tango dance. OK. I'm being a little dramatic. I can actually dance. My thing at the time was swing dancing or Lindyhop. I got very involved in the Cork dance scene and even helped out in a few classes. For a while I really enjoyed attending all the events I could. It's a vibrant scene to be involved in and there are a lovely bunch of people who keep the social side of it alive. When you get drawn into this kind of thing it's possible to think that there's something special about your particular scene when, in fact, dancing is dancing and all forms of dancing create that connection, sense of fun and get us feeling good. We communicate our moods and intentions with our moves.

     Recently I saw this in action at a festival in Cork. As well as vibrant music, colours and movements, Indian dancing is a brilliant expression of comedy, cheekiness, tantalizing teasing and bold partying. It was impossible not to nod in time to the music and at one stage people who knew the particular routine jumped up on the stage and joined in with the dancers.

     Tango is very different but possibly results in a deeper connection due to its intense and moody disposition. It's also a great example of how much can be communicated without the use of words. Your partner would be horrified in Tango if you started a conversation. It reminds me that sometimes it's best just to keep quiet. This was brought home to me in the most graphic way when my dance partner and I got caught up in the attraction of the World Cup during a stay in Buenos Aires.

Travelling to Argentina for Tango

     Football is one of those activities that's a mystery to me. I simply don't understand its magnetism but I accept that it has genuine attraction because I can see the scale of its appeal. I travelled to Buenos Aires with my dance partner, Maria, with the firm intention of spending five glorious weeks dancing and learning Tango alone. It just so happened that our trip to the city coincided with a match in the 2009 World Cup during which Argentina were playing Germany.

     Pretty soon after arriving our focus changed from the dancing to the football. Everyone was talking about it. The excitement was overwhelming. It was impossible to ignore the upcoming match. I'm not interested in football in the slightest but I started getting drawn into it. On the morning of the match, a couple of days after our arrival, we got up to find the city resembling a scene out of the movie Vanilla Sky.

     The streets were normally jam packed with traffic and bustling 24/7. On the morning of the match, however, they were eerily empty and deserted. There was a local park and the match was to be shown there on a massive screen. It wasn't hard to find. Just about every resident of Buenos Aires was either heading there or already there cheering their heads off for the honour of Argentina.

Sins of Our Fathers

     Perhaps it would be useful to know at this point that I am from the UK and Maria is German. I have a hard enough time in Ireland convincing my friends that I'm Welsh and so removed from the oppression the British (mainly English) inflicted on the country during the 700 years prior to its independence in the 20s. After all, I remind Irish people, my Welsh speaking grandmother grew up in a time when speaking Welsh was forbidden in public. It's hard to imagine it now but she endured a secretive existence where her family spoke Welsh behind closed doors in fear of being discovered! 

     Being British and in Argentina has added problems as the history between our two countries is even more recent. The relationship between Germany and Argentina is more harmonious but on a day when they're about to clash on the football field you don't really want to be broadcasting the fact that you're either British or German.

     I have to say that I'm not particularly interested in who wins the World Cup. Occasionally I get excited if England gets into the final and then I may summon the enthusiasm to watch grown men running around a big field while they kick a ball backwards and forwards for 90 minutes. On the other hand, having watched England play a few times I'm used to disappointment and I'd rather cook a good meal or watch a good movie.

     It was impossible not to be drawn into the excitement. On the spot in the midst of that atmosphere literally everything stopped for the match. It would have been the perfect time to rob a bank!

Express Yourself... Consciously

     We were admitted to the park after being frisked by the security guards - they were doing that to everyone, not just us - and we soon found ourselves surrounded by cheering and jeering Argentinian fans. What a brilliant example of collective energy. There was so much joy in the air that you couldn't help but smile.

     The pre match build up ended and after kick off things got pretty tense. I completely forgot my national identity and found myself cheering on the teams as they raced around the field. I joined in the ecstatic cheering when Argentina took a shot at the goal and appeared to score. The whole place erupted into screams of delight.

     And then... Disaster! The goal was disallowed. The mood in the park changed from euphoria to despair and gradually to bitter disappointment with a side order of anger. It was like being in the middle of a grief counselling session and I felt like I was the guilty parent responsible for so much misunderstanding.

     The mood picked up a bit as the match continued. Germany started to pile on the pressure and I got caught up in the adrenalin rush as they shot at the goal. The ball soared through the air. The Argentinian goalie dived at it. He missed. A gasp ensued from the crowd. The ball struck the upright of the goal and bounced off. The crowd sighed with relief and I went "Ooh..." My "Ooh..." was a disappointed release of the tension I'd felt to that point. It betrayed a little too much disappointment that the ball had missed. I wasn't bothered whether it was a German or an Argentinian goal. I just wanted to see somebody score a goal. Unfortunately that wasn't the way the supporters around us felt and the disappointment in my "Ooh..." was a little too revealing. I felt very misunderstood!

     There was a brief moment of confusion as the fans around us searched faces to see who had emitted this cry. I just managed to summon the presence of mind to utter to Maria "Don't say a word!" in case her German accent should be detected. Somehow the moment passed and as the Germans on the big screen started to score real goals the mood around us thankfully changed to self-involved despair. People started leaving in droves. The only logical thing to do was to join them in their misery.

Can You Feel the Love

     It was a great lesson in empathy. Sometimes it can be the worst thing in the world to be feeling down when somebody comes bounding into the room full of the joys of life. On the other hand, it's probably just as easy to lift your mood by matching a person's joy. Most importantly, in this instance, it was important to pick up on the energy of the majority and to match it. It's so easy to say and do things without thinking of the effect or impact it will have on those around us.

     Sometimes it can be better just to sit on the fence. That way we don't need to get caught up in the emotional ups and downs of a situation. We can simply ride it and observe its fluctuations without expending a whole load of our own energy in the process. It doesn't mean we're unsympathetic or unsupportive. We can still empathize. But it does mean that we can be there for others without running the risk of saying or doing something that could make someone feel worse.