It takes a special type of person to love a sports team that has been so hopelessly hapless as the Buffalo Bills. We wear our ‘fandom’ loser image as a badge of honor, because we know that the only people left as Bills fans are as diehard as they come. It’s not a human instinct to support failure. By nature we are programmed to associate winning as a positive attribute, and losing as a negative one.
Which is why I found my reaction to Thursday night’s horrific loss kind of strange. After sleeping off the buzz kill that was on display nationwide the night before, I decided to dedicate some thinking time to think about these strange feelings. They felt vaguely familiar, and nudged me to explore them silently as I went about the tasks of the next day.
It occurred to me a few hours later that the familiar feeling dated back to the early and mid-1980s. It was around the time that the Bills drafted Jim Kelly and he spurned the Bills and the NFL to play for the Houston Gamblers of the now defunct USFL. At that point, Buffalo was at a nadir as a city in disrepair, and the economic future looked bleak from most angles.
There was a sense of hopelessness and despair, that the misfortunes of the Bills were somehow to be expected and endured because the region was bleeding young professionals (myself included) to other parts of the country. There was almost a feeling of acceptance about the Bills losing because we were right at the dawn of the “great fear of relocation” period that existed until only a few months ago.
The reason that particular time resonates so much right now in my mind is because I remember being exasperated as a Bills fan in much the same way during that period in Bills history. Of course the first place my mind jumped to next was to ask myself what I could learn from correlating these two time periods. Surely I learned something from that nadir of despair as a Bills fan?
It took awhile, but it came to me. What I learned about myself as a Bills fan during that period of time had nothing to do with the Bills, nor their propensity for failure. It had everything to do with what I was learning on the job.
Rolling the tape back in life (no such thing as a computer then), it hit me like a ton of bricks about why loving a loser football team is so important to me. The life lesson that came to me in the mid-1980s was from the people around me at the time, not the football team itself. It was the people that surrounded me at that time that moved me out of that state of perpetual despair as a football fan.
Why is this so important? It’s mission critical for me to use the wisdom shared so generously by people that were facing their own mortality straight in the face. They were my patients. I was their oncology nurse. They provided me with a daily reality check about what was important in life.
It wasn’t until that point in time that I realized how much any person’s view of the world is shaped by the mindset of the person viewing it. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A wise man on his deathbed once suggested to me that it’s more important to enjoy the ride than it is to get to the destination.
Another person with advanced cancer during those years once told me that my passion for life was infectious, and that making my patients laugh was arguably my greatest skill. However, it was also the ability to cry with them during the tough times where I felt I really hit my stride. What carried me then, and still does today is the strength I’ve gained through reaching out to provide love and compassion for others.
Every evening shift at Roswell Park was a life lesson, and even the foibles of the Bills provided me with opportunities to gain wisdom from people facing the biggest fight of their lives. My patients never let me sulk for long, and they frequently reminded me to get my head out of my rear end after pouting from yet another stupendous Bills loss.
There was another other life lesson my patients provided that has served me well over the years. People living with this insidious, nefarious, and downright wicked disease don’t mince words. There is a certain freedom that goes along with potential imminent demise. Basically, you don’t give a hoot what other people think anymore. You let it rip.
People with cancer often get mad about their situation. Some come to realize that being angry all the time is not a great way to cope. Others use it as rocket fuel to get through long and arduous treatments. Whatever the reason for anger at that point, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is how the anger is then channeled and then processed.
As a professional, my job was to facilitate channeling that anger into healthier and more energy efficient states of mind. There were times when things got pretty uncomfortable when a patient that had cancer was angry, but that was what I was there to do, reach out with a kind heart and a fully functional ear.
No matter how angry they became, I had to remain calm and in control. Being yelled at, spit at, and physically assaulted was a part of the job at times. Showing love and compassion in the face of great swings of emotion are what we are all about as oncology nurses. We must become the role model of grace under pressure for our patients, so that they feel safe in releasing their justifiable anger at their personal circumstances.
And as such, a professional does not allow themselves to get caught up in the emotion of the moment. A professional steps back, listens, and supports an angry person. They separate the person from their anger. It is the essence of what it means to be a professional.
This is what galls me about professionals in sports today who react to angry fans on social media sites by making unhelpful responses. It doesn’t matter if they are young and immature. When you are a true professional, you do not respond to anger with anger.
Working with people/families affected by cancer taught me a lot about life at a very early age. One of the greatest gifts was the realization that you can choose to continue to be part of the problem, or you can stand up, dust yourself off, and make every minute of your life count for something meaningful.
The Bills fan base is angry right now, and have a venue with which to attack players directly through social media. I don’t see that issue as being any different than someone in my office when I practiced as a psychotherapist lashing out at me because their doctor just told them they have less than six months to live. People at the end of their rope lash out. It’s to be expected.
What is not to be expected is that people who purport to be professional take the bait and respond with defensiveness. A professional in that situation will gain so much more by showing compassion in the face of anger. Listening instead of responding. Understanding instead of judging. That is what caring for people with cancer taught me.
Which brings me to the ultimate point of this mountain of wyobabble. The incredible men, women and children I worked with who were/are facing a diagnosis of cancer taught me that no matter what the circumstance, your state of mind is a choice. However, with every choice there are consequences, intended and unintended.
One of the unintended consequences of spewing anger is the risk of contagion. Anger begets anger, and someone has to stop it or it will destroy everything in its path. That person is what we as nurses used to call a change agent.
Who will be the change agent(s) that will pull this fan base out of its collectively angry behind? Being angry about this team’s misfortunes and writing stupid angry tweets to players is counterproductive. Being angry as a fan base has done nothing to assuage the situation, and with social media, it can even damage the relationship between the players and a fan base.
The message I’m receiving from the collective spirit of those I was privileged to work with in their most challenging days is that we all need to get a grip as Bills fans. Step back and think about what some of the people you know who have died from cancer would say to you right now as disappointed Bills fans.
We can affect the success or failure of this team by how we conduct ourselves as fans. Replace indignation and entitlement with gratitude and compassion, and watch what happens. It will take the mutual effort of fans, players, coaches and the collective spirit of an entire region to raise this team out of its seemingly perpetual state of darkness.
It can and will happen if we believe enough in ourselves that we shun the temptation to get sucked into inflicting pain on one another as a fan base. The choice is ours.