As I watched the baseball playoffs this past season and then pivoted to the NFL, it turns out I’d unknowingly entered a laboratory exploring the human condition. Sports serve as a great catalyst for such explorations and the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Cowboys all provided such a spark: in this case, exploring the ongoing battle between the head and the heart.
Mathematician Blaise Pascal famously opined, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” A favorite quote of mine not just for the clever repetition of “reason,” but because it so succinctly frames a core element of the human condition, familiar to us all.
Pascal wrote this to demonstrate the rationality of belief in a supernatural being: the heart—and not reason—provides the path to divine truths. These past months, though, I’ve seen this dichotomy play out in my own heart’s approach to something more earthly: beliefs and emotions regarding the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, and Dallas Cowboys.
Before connecting the dots between supreme beings and men playing sports, I must share what I consider a major lacking in Pascal’s bit of wisdom. His reflection is a great starting point—but it is just that: a place to begin along the epistemological spectrum. The problem here is no fault of Pascal’s: writing in the seventeenth century, he didn’t have access to the findings of evolution and neuroscience available to us only very recently. Because now we do have some sense of the heart’s reasoning and how and why we experience various emotions and formulate beliefs. We know about hormones, mirror neurons, evolutionary tribalism—all in the starting lineup for the head, going up against the heart.
So yes, the heart often leads the way and the question here is what role reason has in guiding our emotional lives. In modern-day Head vs. Heart, who wins?
The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s indifference
Over the past 12 years, our family has become true fans of the San Francisco Giants. The recent MLB season featured longtime division rivals, the Giants and L.A. Dodgers, with a record-breaking 213 combined regular-season wins (107 and 106 wins, respectively). The Dodgers then won the 5-game first-round playoff series between them bringing the historic Giants season to an abrupt end.
I wasn’t ready for the thrill to be over. That next day, I chatted with my neighbor—a long-time Red Sox fan—and he went on and on, as any good fanatic should, about hisRed Sox and their big playoff game that evening. Looking for my next sports fix, I tuned in: my neighbor had filled my “reason” tank with multiple reasons to cheer for them and they truly were reasonable, including their deeply rooted history on through their current personnel. Yet, 2 pitches into the game I thought, “I just have no possible way of caring how this stranger on the mound does against that stranger at the plate.” I deleted the future recordings and turned off the television.
As any good teacher knows, if the student isn’t first emotionally connected to the material, learning becomes almost impossible. Humans are emotional creatures, for better and for worse. Without a connection of the heart, committing to the truth of the Red Sox’s greatness was simply out of reach. Score one for the heart.
The enemy of our enemy is our friend
Next, I attempted something that may cost me the respect of a few Bay Area readers: I tried rooting for the (gulp) Dodgers.
After the Giants were eliminated my father emailed an article to my brother and me by sportswriter Chris Cwik, “How to choose an MLB playoff contender to root for when you hate every team.” The Dodgers were easy to label as villains with their exceptionally exorbitant payroll, which led to their all-start team winning the previous World Series. That, and I’d essentially had the “Beat L.A.!” chant tattooed on my heart over the past 11 years. But my brother, who has an exceptional baseball IQ, concluded his email response to the article, “I’m afraid I’m rooting for the Dodgers.” His (and Cwik’s) rational analysis was good enough for me.
As I watched, ready to cheer on the Dodger athletes I’d come to know through the 24 games I’d seen them play against the Giants that season, I noticed my heart really was involved. But not quite as I’d planned. I’d clap and say, “Come on Dodger batter,” but my heart would whisper, more emphatically, “Strikeout!” This occurred repeatedly until I threw up my hands and realized my head had no chance against my heart. I was rooting, though not for the Dodgers but against them.
My evolutionary in-group bias remained intact. I’d become a part of the Giant’s organization—emotionally—following the moniker on the sides of busses and billboards, “Together We Are Giant.” And any attack on my team—my tribe—was an attack on me. My head came out strong here, but it was the heart who won in the end.
Blood is thicker than water
With the culmination of baseball season, I turned my attention to football. As a newly minted San Francisco 49ers fan, I watch most of their games, but never a game not involving the Niners. Yet this Thanksgiving, I had been debilitated by the Covid booster, so I had the unsettling experience of sending my family off to Grandma’s as I stayed home alone.
My brother-in-law, Josh, has always been a committed Dallas Cowboys fan, and most previous Thanksgivings we’d watched a bulk of the annual Cowboys games together. So, despite my previous failed attempts to will my heart into submission, I sat down to watch two non-49er teams play football, really expecting not to care. And, maybe it was due to the nostalgia of being home alone on Thanksgiving, but I watched the entire game and, more interestingly, found that I genuinely cared about how the Cowboys performed, doing all the things one does when guided by emotion such as complaining about how biased the refereeing was against “us,” and feeling a small sense of accomplishment when “we” scored, along with experiencing real-life failure when we lost. My strong emotional tie to a family member had been transferred: the things he cared about, I cared about. The heart had secured a 3-0 shutout victory.
The heart really does have a reason
There’s a second segment to Pascal’s quote rarely included with the first: “We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.” As a Human Biology major turned philosopher, this sort of thinking never sat well with me. I want truth to be discovered only as a result of critical thinking, scientific and objective examination, and all other such ideals celebrated during and since the Enlightenment.
But as a human being, I’m forced to admit the heart must play a role. Whether regarding the truth of such matters as supernatural beings and on down through our daily lives and relationships, we can reasonably allow our hearts to do a share of the reasoning. And so the challenge—and the joy—as we navigate our lives involves finding the balance between the two, understanding how one informs the other, and, sometimes, sitting back and letting emotion lead, allowing us to discover truths about ourselves along the way.