Monday, June 09, 2014

Why so emotional? It's only a horse race.

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In case you didn't notice, this weekend's Belmont Stakes created quite the hubbub.  The fuss leading up to the Kentucky Derby is always stunning.  My mailbox fills weeks in advance with ads from companies selling Derby-related goodies, from Official Collectible Derby Mint Julep Glasses to after-dinner mints with horses on the wrappers.  I had a Derby party twice, and ordered some items, and the annual flood has increased exponentially every year since.  The Preakness seems a bit of an afterthought by comparison.  I've never once been offered an apron with "Preakness" printed in fancy script across the pocket.

Then there's the Belmont Stakes, the third "jewel" in racing's vaunted Triple Crown.  This year's race looked to be a done deal with California Chrome, one of those storybook underdog horses we love to love, a likely shoe-in for the first triple in 40 years.  But it was not to be.  Chrome came in fourth and the crowd (and his owner) went completely whack-a-doodle.

Why is this so important to us?  I have friends who wouldn't know a horse from a sofa who are hysterical over the outcome.  Why do they care? Why do any of us who aren't in the racing industry care?

There are a few reasons, and they're all related to our ability to pretend to be what we're not.  We humans are a squirrelly bunch.  Yes, we relate to squirrels as well as we do to horses or emus or trees or each other.  Part of it is Biophilia Hypothesis in action.  I've covered that in the past, so I won't recap.  Part of it is our desperate need to write our personal stories in ways that make us look much better than we actually are.  Part is our desire to belong.  We are, after all, pack animals who prefer groups of around seven fellow humans with two leaders.

Then there's the underlying factor:  Vicarious Experience

When we watch someone do something and we accept it as our own experience, that's vicarious.  When we get emotional over someone else's happenstance, that's us absorbing their experience as if it were our own.  Education is a vicarious experience.

This is not the same, necessarily, as empathy or sympathy.  Those are pure emotion.  When we can feel someone else's pain and understand how they're feeling, that's empathy.  When we see someone else's pain and try to understand how they're feeling but don't quite, that's sympathy.  When we absorb it as if it were our own, that's vicarious experience.
Belmont Stakes courtesy of NY Times
 WinnerTonalist in the center, Commissioner on the right

So the emotion felt by race fans (or football fans, or viewers of porn or romantic comedies or action movies or what have you), we are actually putting ourselves into the action as if it were our own.  We horse people borrow excitement from our horses and from competitive riders above our levels. We learn from watching them.  We run afoul of our own craziness when we become so overly-involved that we act out in bad ways, but most of us are more reasonable than that and control those impulses.  It takes a hard-core wing nut to injure a horse in the night in order to insure that our favorite will win.  Not that it doesn't happen, but those instances make news for a reason.

What social media has done is notable.  We now have the opportunity to not only vicariously experience things we're seeing in front of our faces, but to experience things other people are seeing and sending into our spheres from afar.  This can be a good thing when it's a learning experience. It's a very bad thing when the experience is pure emotion with no fabric behind it to give us something to mediate the rawness.  It's from those experiences that we reap such news items as the couple in Las Vegas who took their crazy to a new level in declaring "Revolution!" and shooting cops, a bystander, and each other.  We can do our best to create our own fabric of reality behind the experience, or we can lessen our exposure by keeping ourselves to ourselves more and sopping up the public insanity less.  It's a call each of us makes.

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