Witnessing moral beauty and experiencing elevation at the espnW: Women + Sports Summit
About a decade ago, I read about an emotion psychologists began studying in the early 2000s called elevation. It's a positive emotion, but it differs from happiness in that it is triggered specifically by witnessing acts of human moral beauty, creates a warm, uplifted feeling and causes the person experiencing the emotion to want to become a better person. Beautiful concept, right?
Elevation explains why we cry while watching a movie about a person doing good in the world or tear up when we witness random acts of kindness by people we've never met. It also explains how I have felt for the past three days while attending the ninth annual espnW: Women + Sports Summit in Newport Beach, California.
When former gymnasts Jordyn Wieber and Sarah Klein spoke on stage about how their lives have transformed since testifying in January at the sentencing hearing for disgraced former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who is currently serving an effective life sentence for sexually abusing hundreds of women, the air was thick with emotion. Neither Wieber nor Klein cried while recounting the past year of their lives and the movement they've helped to start -- but I cried while listening to them.
I looked around and saw other women lifting their sunglasses to wipe away tears, as well. In that moment, I remembered the article I'd read years ago and realized "elevation" was the perfect word to explain how we all were feeling. Inspired, yet tearful. They weren't happy tears, exactly. They were the type of tears that move you to want to be better, to take action, to get involved and make change.
I experienced them again Tuesday night, while watching the powerful documentary "A Mountain to Climb," which was directed by ESPN features producer Kristen Lappas and tells the story of Pratima Sherpa, an 18-year-old woman from Kathmandu who was raised by her parents in a storage shed just behind the third green of the Royal Nepal Golf Club and is attempting to become the first female golf professional from Nepal.
The film documents Pratima's unlikely story, culminating in her 2017 attempt to finish in the top five at qualifying school, while competing against 21 men and playing from the men's tees. In May, it won a Sports Emmy for best short documentary for good reason: It was filled with moments of hope, beauty, determination and wisdom. "It doesn't matter how it ends," Pratima's father, Pasang, says in one scene, as he walks the course with his daughter on the second day of Q-school. "We tried our best. If we did not do well, then there's no point regretting it. Many people come here to climb mountains and don't succeed."
Tuesday night was not the first time I'd seen the film. I watched it when it aired on ESPN in April and again on my computer Tuesday afternoon in preparation to host a screening of the film and moderate a panel discussion with Pratima and Kristen at the Summit. Both times, I felt inspired and moved, but neither viewing brought me to tears. That changed Tuesday night, because this time, I didn't just watch the film. I watched Pratima and her parents -- who boarded a plane for the first time in their lives to fly to Los Angeles to attend the Summit -- watch the film together. I watched Kristen watch them watch the film as a family. When Pratima's father spoke those words above onscreen, I looked at Kristen and saw tears in her eyes. I looked to where Pasang was seated and saw him squeeze his daughter's arm and I felt my cheeks redden with heat.
It wasn't his words alone that moved me to tears, but what his words, coupled with that intimate expression, represented: love and support for his daughter, the sacrifices he and Pratima's mother had made so she could chase an impossible dream, an openness to allowing a reporter from halfway across the world into their lives to share their story, and unconditional acceptance of his daughter. I was witnessing a human act of moral beauty.