My younger brother said something that stuck with me a bit longer than I expected it to. He noted, after a particularly bad throw from me, that I tended to yell at my disc as it arced whichever way it was arcing (invariably the exact opposite direction from where I wanted). He said something along the lines of "Why?".
"Well," I said, "I know it makes no difference. I know I have no effect. It just feels good to express myself anyway."
"Yeah, Jeremy, it's harmless and pointless.. just like prayer, right?"
I get it.
See, he's making a jab at my pretty staunchly "screw your prayers" atheist position. I ranted at him a bit about how my yelling at a disc isn't quite like people withholding medicines from a dying child and felt vaguely superior about myself for a moment or 3.
Last night, I'm laying there in my bed trying to sleep, and I kept going over it in my head. Why do I yell at the disc in midair? Why bother? What's the point? Why does it feel good to yell at that disc?
Well, here's what it's not: an honest attempt to change the direction of flight. I know on every level of my being that the disc is going where it's going because of the interaction of my skill in throwing (or considerable lack thereof) and the air currents the disc flies through.
I thought about it for a while, and I think I hit on the reason why I DO tend to yell at the disc - it's social. It makes me feel better to express my desire to change the things no longer in my control to people around me. I don't think I'd do it if I was running the course solo (and in fact, when I go out to the driving range with clubs or hit a ball around a quick 9 on my own, I almost never talk to myself, the clubs, or the ball - even though I have even worse results on the golf courses than I do with disc golf courses). It makes me feel good to know that we all feel just about the same. We yell at trees (or praise them) for being in exactly the wrong (or right) places, knowing damned well that the trees make no conscious choice to get in / out of the way of our discs. We credit throws with luck when skill is involved. We credit ourselves with skill when unexpected gusts of wind are involved.
When it comes to group activities like this, it seems we enjoy a certain amount of exposition in order to express our feelings and thoughts about our own performance. It's almost like boasting about hunting exploits around a campfire (but significantly less manly, since, well, this involves plastic discs being thrown around a pretty course).
Is that like prayer?
I don't know... my experiences with prayer were always about DOING, SEEING, FORGIVING, and THANKING. Prayer was taught as a communal way to talk with god because we had to do it - either to make sure that he got the idea we were really happy with having been told to drink wine (mmmmmmmmm concord grapes) or to beg for the privilege of being written into the "book of life" so that we didn't die in the next year. Some prayers seemed more directed at a sense of community through their application of the rabbi and congregation alternating the reading, but here's the thing: we were taught that prayer MATTERED.
If you believe in god and you pray, you do it because you're trying to influence in some way this omnipotent force with your own (or your community's) voice. That's different, in a lot of ways, from my yelling at my disc as it arcs awkwardly through the air to a bad landing.
But it still holds a similarity - that need to communicate with the group around us. And THAT'S interesting to me - why do we feel this need?
I am sure that someone could probably explain that clearly with anthropological studies and a dissertation on prehistoric communication and learning, but I prefer this: I like it when people understand me. When I have a bad throw, I like to express my displeasure. Yelling at an inanimate object (which is actually animated at that moment but in completely the wrong way for my liking) feels a lot better than yelling at myself or saying "OH JEEZ I SUCK" over and over again.
Still, next time I disc golf I'm gonna be thinking about this again - quite self-consciously, I might add.