Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Fantasy of What If

Several years ago, I received an invitation to join a fantasy football league made up of other seminary graduates. I had no experience with fantasy sports of any kind, and I had only a passing interest in professional football, but the opportunity to strengthen my connection with some classmates was appealing. Now, six or seven years later, I still know very little about professional football and fantasy sports, but I seem to care about both a great deal more.

Fantasy football is pretty simple. Before the season starts, a group of individuals (called “managers”) take turns drafting NFL athletes onto their teams. Then, each week, managers face off against one another, deciding which of their players they will “start” and thus count toward their weekly score. A certain number of points are credited for each player’s accomplishments. For example, in our league, a player who scores a touchdown in a real game also adds six points to his fantasy team’s total. Each line-up looks a little bit like a real football squad—a quarterback, a few wide receivers and running backs, a tight end, and some defensive players—but, because each team is made up of players from lots of different NFL teams, the decision on whom one should start in his line-up becomes a serious statistical consideration.

Life is filled with tough decisions. Should I take that job? Is he the one I should marry? When should we put our house on the market? When faced with a critical decision, many of us consider all the options, weigh the possibilities, and make what we think is the best choice. But, when things do not turn out as well as we had hoped, the inevitable “what if” questions arise. Maybe I should have stayed a little longer. Maybe I should have kept my options open. What if things had been different?    

In real life, those questions will never be answered. We can dream and imagine and relive those pivotal moments in our minds over and over, but the hypotheticals are destined to remain hypothetical. We will never know how life would have turned out…except in fantasy football. In any given week, if I choose to ignore the experts’ advice and go out on my own and start a long-shot rookie wide receiver, I can see the full and exact consequences of my choice. Regardless of my decision, the veteran, whom I left on my fantasy bench, actually played in real life, and his would-be statistical offering to my team is calculated and presented to me in painful precision. “Would things have worked out differently?” we ask over and over. In fantasy football, the answer is clear.

Maybe that is why I love fantasy football so much, and I am guessing that I am not alone. So often in life we search for closure that comes with the reassurance that the decision we made is the right one or that we could have done better. As anyone trapped by unhealthy obsessive tendencies can testify, there is a fatal trap in that kind of logic and human longing. We can get stuck in that place of “what if,” consumed by the consequences of our own choices. But how much can we really choose? Do our choices really matter? Could things have been any different? Is there such a thing as “what if?”

Although life is a series of choices, ultimately our ability to choose our own destiny is far less open than we might want to think. Can you choose your parents? Can you choose your personality? Can you choose your gifts and talents? The psalmist seems to have those questions in mind when he composed Psalm 139: “If I climb up into heaven, thou art there; if I go down to hell, thou art there also. If I take the wings of the morning, and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there also shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.” In other words, no matter where our choices take us, God is still there.

You cannot choose whether God will love you. No decision of yours can remove you from God’s love. What, then, is the point of wondering how else things might have gone? As a fantasy football manager, I agonize over my poorly-made choices and celebrate my own self-exaggerated wisdom. As a priest, I often sit with people while they wrestle with life’s unanswerable questions and try to remind them of God’s undeniable promises. As a child of God, I try to remember that there is nothing I could ever do to change the fact that I belong to God and that he loves me no matter what.

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