Empty talk

April 12, 2011

I don’t play golf, and I’m not really into golf. I completely share the sentiment behind my friend Mike’s Facebook post on Sunday evening after the Masters tournament ended: “I only watch golf on one day a year. And once again, that day proves to be very entertaining!” And in a follow-up post: “That’s all the golf I needed. See you next year, golf.”

Having said that, I fail to appreciate the “controversy” surrounding Tiger Woods’s post-tournament press conference remarks. Yesterday, the chatter on the sports-talk radio stations broke down into two categories: “Who is Charl Schwartzel?” And “What’s Tiger’s problem?” The second question was related to Woods’s terse press conference moments after he completed his final round. Here’s the interview in its entirety:

Q. Tiger, 67 today. You said earlier in the week you just wanted to get to the second nine on Sunday to give yourself a chance. Do you feel like you played well enough today to win?

TIGER WOODS: Well, we’ll see. Right now I’m one back, and we’ll see what Adam does.

Q. As you sit here now, do you feel like you’re back in the thick of things, in the fight, the way you played today, especially in the opening nine, going out in 31?

TIGER WOODS: Yeah, I’m one back. We’ll see what happens.

Q. Are you going to now go in to get something to eat, go to the range? What’s your plan?

TIGER WOODS: I’m going to go eat. I’m starving.

That’s it? It could have been so much worse! He didn’t use any profanity or anything! After all, Woods knew that he just missed a golden opportunity to rehabilitate his image and reestablish his dominance of the game. A Masters victory would have put to rest all questions about Tiger Woods the golfer, if not the person. I imagine he was incredibly disappointed. So who can blame him for not being all “chatty Kathy”?

Besides, the questions were dumb and meaningless. What is it about the quality of the reporters’ questions that deserves more thoughtful answers?

I was reminded of a recent column by Stanley Fish in the New York Times about the kind of empty talk that we often engage in as a matter of course. This happens in sports reporting all the time. What prompted Fish’s column was a recent halftime interview with Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun during the NCAA tournament. Calhoun said that in the second half his team needed to play better defense and get more rebounds.

“And how are you going to do that?” the reporter asked. “Get the ball off the boards.” Fish pointed out that “getting the ball off the boards” is exactly equivalent to saying, for the second time, “We need to get more rebounds.” In other words, Calhoun’s words were meaningless. They conveyed no information. As in Woods’s case, the questions were dumb, so who cares that Calhoun didn’t answer them more thoughtfully.

As I was reading his piece, I was reminded of the temptation I face in pastoral care to say something—anything—to comfort someone in need. I often ask myself the question, “What can I say here, in this difficult situation, to bring comfort or hope?” I’m the pastor, after all. I’m supposed to have the answers, right? I’m supposed to know what to say and what to pray. I sometimes feel anxious about finding the right words.

The truth is that when it comes to caring for someone in need, words are often unnecessary. In fact, words are far less important than simply being there for someone—being present. There’s even a clinical sounding term for this In the field of pastoral care. It’s called the “ministry of presence,” and it is the most important ministry of all.

All of us can perform this kind of ministry, whether we’re clergy or not.

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