Japan and the vanishing point

For the past few days you've heard often and earnestly about "perspective." You've been reminded again and again that great planetary events overtake us all, and that catastrophe "helps us keep things in perspective."

What is meant by this generally I'm never sure. But when sportscasters say it -- usually with grim expressions and grave shaking of the haircuts -- you can be certain they mean that sports are unimportant.

This is wrong.

Because it is in the very instant of cataclysm and the big kaboom that we most need reminding of who and what we are.

Sports -- and its reassurances and its mythologies and its object lessons in near-limitless human potential -- is an important part of this.

Please don't misunderstand. I'm not talking about sports stardom or sports celebrity or sports money. Those things are unimportant. They were always unimportant. By all means, keep them in perspective. Keep them small. Nor do I mean the ridiculous apparatus we build around sports, the elaborate theater of excess we raise in support of our games. Those have always been unimportant, too. Of no consequence, these things are no more than a business plan, a vanity and a profit center for opportunists and cynics and pickpockets like me.

The shoes, the snacks, the beer commercials. All nonsense.

Your office brackets are nonsense. Selection Sunday is nonsense. But a kid driving the lane midair all grace and fire and defiance of gravity is not. The NFL draft or the NFL lockout or the NFL logo on your comforter and sheet set is nonsense. The courage to get back up having been knocked down is not. Opening ceremonies are majestic, profitable nonsense.

Usain Bolt, 9.58, is not.

In fact, the irreducible human gesture at the center of modern sports may be the most frequent and most powerful and most widely disseminated reminder of our absolute presence and power in this physical world. In that gesture of run or jump or throw, in winning and losing, in our frailty and brevity, we discover the boundaries of our strength and tenacity and adaptability, of our faith and bravery, of our endurance and our capacity for pain and heartbreak. We learn what we can bear.

On an indifferent planet, this small human gesture at the center of our experience is sometimes all we have left. Stripped of our technology and our modernity and the sheltering dullness of our routine, we are left with only the human. Against a landscape of mud and ash scoured of everything comforting and familiar, in disaster we are left only with what we know about ourselves.

This we call hope.

This is what keeps us alive. This is how we persist.

This is why sports are important.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.