Competition, Part 2: The Glory of Losing?

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Starting Point:  I hate losing.  I hate it.  Like poison and death.  Okay, I’m exaggerating.

Like poison.

But losing is not bad for me.

I play ultimate.  That’s my favorite sport.  I discovered it in college, lo these many years ago, and have loved it passionately ever since.  I’m good, not great.  I used to be competent-sectionals, playing-up-to-regionals good.  Now I’m 47-year-old good.  If you play competitive ultimate, you understand my description; if you don’t, just believe me that at 47 I don’t get humiliated in the average pick-up game against 20-somethings, and that’s saying a fair amount.

I can also play basketball, tennis, racquetball, volleyball, baseball, football, disc golf (that’s the one where you throw a disc but don’t run, which people often think is ultimate) and soccer, maybe a few others.  Oh, and I coach some, too.  I still suck at soccer, but I’m getting better.

I have lost at all of these sports, in situations that meant a lot to me.  I’m not going to debate whether losing meant too much to me–I know it did.  But I tend to be 100%-all-in or not at all.  That is both my strength and my weakness.  I have trouble finding that switch to turn it off.

An area I’ve grown in my life is that I can now bear a loss in which I have played at least respectably.  I think that has come with age and an ever-increasing gratitude that I can still play, period.

People who compete to win don’t like to lose, and if you don’t care, seriously don’t care at all whether you win or lose, I probably don’t want to play with you.  If the game means nothing to you, then it loses its enjoyment for me.

I don’t do everything I can to keep from losing, but I generally do everything I can wring from my body, within the rules, to try to win.  I hope you can appreciate the distinction.  Winning is not more important than the other people involved, which is why breaking the rules is not okay: breaking the rules means disrespecting your competition.  It means breaking the agreement that competition relies on: we are challenging each other within these parameters, to see which of us in this moment can do this better.  If I go outside the agreed upon parameters, then winning has become more important than my honesty and integrity, and more important than how I treat you.  In that case, I should stop playing.

The paradox is that, having done everything I can to keep from losing, I learn more, and grow more, from loss than I do from victory.  Now, I LIKE victory a lot more.  I like the high.  I can cruise on that high all day or night, and it boosts my productivity almost ridiculously.    Yes, I will examine that in one of following installments of this series.  It’s important.  But losing…

Wide World of Sports.  Anyone around my age remembers this:  “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports.  The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition.”*

The skier bites it.  Hard.  It’s the perfect image for losing, utterly visceral and even if you haven’t ski-jumped, you can feel that crash in your bones and relate to it with any loss you’ve ever suffered.  (ABC grasped that, and though they changed the “Thrill of Victory” images–I chose the one of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, for nostalgia–they always kept this shot for the agony, though they later added some other failures to follow it.)

Defeat offers me humility.  I believe humility is the characteristic God most desires in us, because it leads us into right relationship with God.  It is our crucial prerequisite.  As a good friend of mine taught me, the one thing I need to become a Christian?  I have to be a sinner.  Meaning, I have to understand that I sin and therefore I need God.  Losing is not sin, but losing always bites me right in the pride.

Should we not lose more, that humility may abound?  Nah.  If we’re trying to lose, it doesn’t count.  We are humbled when we have given everything, left it all on the field, and still lose.  Winning can do some good stuff for us, too, and like I said, I’ll get to that.  But honestly, I’m starting here because it’s more important…and it’s not that hard to convince people that winning is good for them.

Losing reminds me of my limits.  I’m not omnipotent.  I can exert every ounce and still fail.  This world is not mine to control.  I live in dependence on the God who adores me.  I need to live in that knowledge, every day.  Losing is a nice way to be reminded of that, meaning the consequences of the reminder aren’t big.  I’m bummed for a little while.  My life isn’t over.  To quote my dear friend J.V., “It isn’t the end of the world; it isn’t even the end of the week.”  It keeps me mindful that God is God and I am not.

Losing helps me learn how to handle failure.  I’ve wondered if somehow that lesson is harder for me than for most folks, since I seem to get the opportunity to relearn it so often, much like i wonder if maybe my pride issues are more serious than for the average prideful folk.  I’m pretty certain, without taking an exhaustive walk down memory lane, that my lifetime winning percentage is well below .500.  That may be because I think too much of my abilities and repeatedly put myself in positions in which my odds are not so great.  But we also improve when we face competition better than ourselves.  In fact, if we’re seeking to improve, the single best way is to force ourselves to go against superior competition that is still in our general range of ability and then spend time practicing the specific areas in which we came up short or got outplayed.  This is one crucial aspect of handling failure:  get up and try again. 

How important is handling failure?  Well, you can either learn to handle failure or you can always succeed.  The people I know who insist on the latter either do themselves serious internal damage or have severe character issues.  I know a church that will not hire anyone as pastor who has not suffered a significant failure in life.  Failure teaches us empathy.  I think empathy is the characteristic we need most if we’re going to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Again, there are much bigger failures in life that force us to learn empathy, and most of the time we don’t get to choose these (or we look back and realize our choices led us there, but we did not want to and would give anything to change those choices now).  Losing gives us a slight taste of the pain that the people around us are enduring and keeps us in touch with them.  Or it can.

“That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”  Or it just makes me bitter.  I’ve seen bitter at close range.  If it doesn’t kill me, it can make me stronger, but it really depends on how I choose to handle it.  Losing gives me a chance to practice, over and over, how to become stronger instead of bitter.  How to come back and try harder next time, how to recognize my own weaknesses and flaws and strengthen and improve, how to get in better shape.  It keeps me stretching and eating healthily and developing my cardio and doing all the numerous things that being a 47-year-old active person requires.  I have an 8-year-old son, so I also DSC03035have a goal of staying this active for another decade (or so).  I may not be that fortunate, but I’m going to do everything within my control to try.  I owe him that.  Does looking at his face or chasing him down a field motivate me to stay in shape?  Yeah.  Does it motivate me as much as losing a game of ultimate 13-12 and having the guy I’m guarding score the winning point.  Nope.  Nope, it does not.  Fortunately, both contribute to the same cause.

(I recognize that some people can get the same thing from individual sports and don’t have to compete against others to experience this.  Cool.  I’m just not wired that way.)

My final thought:  losing means someone else won.  That might seem stupid or obvious to you, but I don’t think it is.  I want my turn to win; I need to take my turn to lose.  Both winning and losing offer us opportunities to grow our character, in very different ways.  Assuming this is true, I need a dose of both.  So do you.  Winning sometimes and then letting you win is not the same thing (or vice-versa).  When we refuse to fully put ourselves into a competition, we may be defending ourselves from disappointment.  “Yeah, I lost, but I wasn’t really trying.”  I get pissed off at that.**  It robs the winners of their deserved satisfaction.  Having said that, Ohmygosh! is it tempting to offer up excuses when I lose (see opening statement) and I fall to that temptation too frequently.  But I shouldn’t, certainly not out loud, because if you beat me, then today, in this game, you proved yourself better at this and I should give you the rightful spoils of your victory.  Acknowledging that means respecting my opponent.*** In sports, it means doing unto others as I would have them do unto me.  Jesus made that a biggie.

Having grown up in a very competitive environment (see Part One) I was taught that being a good winner (“don’t boast or rub it in”) and being a good loser (“don’t pout or make excuses”) are both important.  The older I get, the more I appreciate being taught this because I recognize the sound theology behind it.  Now I have to amend my opening statement.  No, I didn’t suddenly decide that I like losing, after all.  I still hate it.  Winning is more fun.

I hate losing and I’m grateful for what it’s done in my life.  Paradox.  You get to decide if that qualifies for “glory” or not.

 

 

*If you want the Paul Harvey “The Rest of the Story,” read this Vinko Bogataj bio on Wikipedia. There’s some good humor in it.  Vinko suffered a minor concussion, and his crash was not a serious tragedy in his life.  In fact, it led to minor U.S. celebrity for him, including Vinko’s being asked for an autograph–by Muhammad Ali.

**To be clear, I respect your right not to play.  You don’t have to play my sport; you don’t have to play sports at all.  You also get to be a beginner.  Much respect and kudos for trying.  But I’m not going to respect committing to the competition and then pulling out to save face or protect pride.  If you ever catch me doing that…

***If they cheated or didn’t win respectably, different deal.

Of Ultimate and How I Deal

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We live in Nicaragua; living here is hard. The motto I’ve come up with is “flexibility and humor and grateful for what God gives today.” I could say a lot about that. I will, another time.

This place is hard for many of the same reasons anyplace with extreme poverty is hard: people in desperate situations making desperate and (from our perspective) destructive choices, rampant addiction, lacking sufficient income to cover basic needs.  One of our neighbors, who has a 21-month-old and a new baby of about six weeks, is separated from her husband. He took up with another woman and, in spite of our friend’s patience and grace and continuing offers of forgiveness, he has acted as if he can live both lives. The main reason he seems to believe this will work is that she is completely dependent on him economically—she has no food without him.

We have been doing our best to support her while watching in horror and trying not to interject with our opinions too strongly. If this happened to a woman friend in the U.S who had means to support herself, we would counsel, while hoping for reconciliation, to pull back from the relationship until her husband showed signs of repentance, like, say, stop having sex with the other woman and disappearing for days at a time. We have been inviting her for meals, bringing her meals, helping with groceries, and spending time with her and helping watch her children. Our 15-year-old daughter, who was born with twice as much nurturing in her heart as the average person, takes care of the nearly-two-year-old a lot, purely voluntarily. I have to tell you, that’s beautiful to see, and it gives me hope for the teenage race. Finally, months and months later, our friend has reached her limit. She told him she’s done. She still loves him, but he clearly does not love her. His response is that’s just her, and she will come around (implied: when she gets hungry enough).

So, “when helping hurts” readers, feminists, wise folks all, what can we do here? Here’s what we’re doing: we’re feeding our friend and her babies. We’re encouraging her that she made the right decision about her cheating husband and we’re trying to brainstorm with her about how she can go forward and support herself. I forgot to mention—she can read at about a 2nd grade level and can do only basic arithmetic, and had been in one of our classes we’re offering in our barrio, until her life went haywire. I had the privilege of teaching her to multiply and divide–one my best moments in four years here, when her eyes lit up and she grasped it for the first time…at age 25. Unemployment in Nicaragua is between 50-70% (yeah, with zeros, not single digits), so you can begin to grasp what she’s up against. And we are praying very hard that she will not take up with someone worse. She is an intelligent and practical woman. But the pattern here is for men to have affairs and move on and women to take a new lover until the woman gets pregnant. Repeat. I won’t even get into how these “step-dads” often treat the children. Just imagine the worst, and you’re right.

Yes, we’re trying to establish some clear boundaries in how we help her, so that our temporary solution doesn’t end up making things worse in the long term (what’s worse than going hungry, with your baby, in the short term?). Mainly, we’re trying to love our neighbor as ourselves, and do for her as we would want someone to do for us. None of that turns out to be easy, and we’re at the very beginning of figuring out how to do it well.

So then there’s ultimate. The sport, I mean, the one with the disc and all the running.* We’re not poor. I never will be, unless I fall into some drug addiction or alcoholism and destroy all the support structure we have in place. We live among the poor, but that is still worlds away from actually living in poverty. We give up some conveniences and we accept some potential dangers living here. The greater cost, the higher risk, is our sanity. Living in the face of this kind of suffering can get to you. I’ve been depressed for much of the time I’ve lived here, and truthfully, I haven’t extended myself into the depths of it. Our organization, Servant Partners, is about living incarnationally (i.e. alongside, but much more to say there, so that’s another post, too) in slums among the urban poor, BUT, the key is our phrase, “Sustainable incarnational living.” People can burn out quickly in this work, especially if they are accustomed to a different, more convenient life where things work better and more efficiently and the front gate doesn’t have six or seven borrachos hanging out all day (we like them, by the way). We’re in year five, which means a)we’ve figured out how to survive four years and b) (I think) we’re learning how to thrive here.  “Sustainable” I take to mean we must find a means of living here and doing this work that doesn’t kill us, destroy our marriage, incline us to abuse our children, or ruin our health. No, it means this, too: we can grow into folks who love God and our neighbors more. A great myth of our work is that it will automatically turn one into a saint, to which I say, “HA!” Not so much. At least, I haven’t seen it yet. I sure as heck don’t see it in the mirror.

Twice a week, Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon, I get to play ultimate. I love ultimate. Like Top 5 I love ultimate (grouping my children together as one number on that list). But ultimate has changed for me since I moved here, and not only because we play a slightly different version on Sundays and a bit lower level than you’re starting to see on SportsCenter (hooray!). Ultimate has become one of my lifelines to sanity, one of the key blocks of my “sustainable incarnational” foundation. I get to run around like a maniac for about 3-4 hours, throw and chase after a piece of plastic, jump, dive (delightful in the rainy season, “like diving on asphalt covered in broken glass” in the dry season), feel younger, stay in shape, and, for a little while, let the world be about passing and catching that disc up and down the field. For a huge added bonus, two of my daughters love to play.

Playing ultimate relieves stress, gives me a safe place to vent my emotions and frustrations, and, frequently enough, bolsters my self-esteem, which takes a hammering here most of the time. (Go ahead, psychoanalyze me…just don’t tell me about it.) For me, playing ultimate is a form of worship. If you don’t know the Eric Little line, you should stop reading this and go watch Chariots of Fire. That kind of worship. Worshiping God with this body he created, discovering what it can do, rejoicing in his gift of exercise. Plus, kicking ass once in a while. Today, I got a pass that led me so I had to lay out (ultimate lingo for dive), then I got up and curved a throw to my daughter, who made a sliding catch for a score. Yeah, we celebrated. On another play, my other daughter made a terrific catch for a score—but she was on the other team. We celebrated that, too. Just barely, slightly less.

That’s how I deal. One of the big ways, anyhow. To say “it helps” would be a gross understatement. I won’t go so far as to say I couldn’t live here without it, but I hope I don’t have to try. My wife, who loves and understands me, helps me block out this time every week. Like I said, I’m not impoverished. I have choices and disposable income, like for buying discs and cleats and spending gas money to drive back and forth (in our car!) to our school where we play. Those are privileges for which I’m profoundly grateful. Our time living here has taught us many things—like how bloody fortunate we are—but maybe the most important has been how to keep living here. Because without that, none of the other lessons are going to help much. They certainly won’t help our friend and her children.

 

* Some people call it “ultimate frisbee,” but that, too, is a post for a different time (hint: we don’t play with a Frisbeetm).

CRUCIAL POST-SCRIPT:  Since I posted this, our friend and her husband are, astonishingly, reconciled.  We are still holding our breath, but from what we can tell, they seem to be doing well.  I thought about scrapping this, but the description of our experience is still accurate, and there is too much bad news here not to share good news when it happens!