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.

Competition, Part 1: How Important Is Winning?

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I don’t know, but I’ve spent all my life trying to figure it out.

Is there any room for competition in the Kingdom of God?  In a world starving for grace and love, do activities that promote one person over another, often because of innate abilities, have any place?

Let’s start with some truths:

The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,  and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.

But when they measure themselves by one another, and compare themselves with one another, they do not show good sense.

Trying to win is trying to be first, by definition.  If I am racing, I want to get there first.  I want more points than you, or fewer strokes than you, or higher scores than you.  I want to stand on the highest step of the podium.

Winning is trying to be great by being great.  Again, this seems so obvious as to be a given, even redundant, but if greatness comes from service, from elevating others and putting them first, then winning and greatness-through-servanthood look, on the surface, antithetical.

Competition is, again by definition, a comparison.  If one team cheats or illegally brings in a ringer, we say that’s not fair, by which we mean, the match-up did not accomplish a fair comparison.  Competition in any sport that has a winner and a loser, or a winner and a bunch of losers, is the act of comparing these parties’ ability to accomplish a certain feat or display a certain skill or complete a certain task, to see which is better, faster, or more effective.  The purpose of rules and, in certain contexts, limitations on who can play, is to make for an even and just comparison.  “Yes, you ‘won’ the basketball game but we shot at the ten-foot basket and yours was eight.”  (We used to call that “ego ball,” or “dunk ball,” by the way–playing on a rim low enough to be able to dunk at will.  For those to whom God didn’t give the ability to dunk on a ten-foot rim.)  If a ref or ump calls a game poorly, meaning doesn’t follow the rules very well, but at least calls it badly in both directions, we can live with that.  But when we suspect that the official favored the other team, gave them the benefit of unfair rulings, failed to (or chose not to!) create an even comparison, well, God made tar and feathers for a reason.

You see my point, I hope, and yet comparing ourselves with others is foolish.  Sports ARE measuring ourselves by one another.  That’s why we get pissed off when the playing field isn’t even: it suggests an inaccurate measurement, scales held down in your favor.

Which brings us to the next point.  We hate to lose.  I’ll own that; I hate to lose.  I really do.  Not as much as I used to.  I’ve come a long way in this area.  I used to hate to lose at anything, at any time, in any circumstances, and it ate at me when I would lose.  I mean, it would gnaw at my liver.  What is the “it” in that sentence?

You know, “it.”  The thing in you that hates to lose.

Yes, but what is that?  When I say I’ve made progress in that area, I mean that thing doesn’t rage as long or as loud as it used to.  There are even times when I can just brush it off and go merrily about my day, because this or that competition didn’t even matter.

There are even times when I can be happy for the winner and content to be the loser.  And I call that “parenthood,” the greatest of all humbling experiences.  I know people who can’t stand to lose to their children at anything and some who have never let their child win, ever.  “When he or she finally beats me, everyone will know it was earned!”  Okay.  But it may just be that you don’t want to give up winning.

Before I digress too far, let me tell you a few specifics:  I grew up being taught that the purpose of playing sports was to win.  Period.  Yes, there was some lip service paid to “how you play the game” and “the importance of participation,” but honestly, not that much.  We were there to win.  I was not taught to win at any costs, because that defaulted the fairness of the comparison.  It was important to win fairly, because then the win counted; it was important to win.

(Fortunately, the competition wasn’t to look coolest, because clearly I was losing at that.  Even my gracious wife said, “You’re better looking now.”  We think this happened in 1984 or ’85.)12143283_1054280147916139_3712188732773355066_n

I was not a victim of this attitude, I was a gleeful participant.   It just turned out that I wasn’t a big winner.  I didn’t get a a lucky number in the universal lottery of athletic ability.  I just wanted to win, really bad.  I wanted to prove myself, I wanted to be important, I wanted to impress people, I wanted to be cheered.

I would say that most of these desires are, in truth, opposed to the Gospel.  They are an attempt to earn myself value in my own and others’ eyes.  The fact that my value would come from making a ball go through a hoop or fly over a fence (or settle in my glove and then reach first base in time) means that I wasn’t grasping God’s value for me.

Wanting to prove ourselves great by triumphing over others, wanting to be first by making someone else second, needing to compare ourselves with others to show that we come out ahead in our comparison, these are all feasting exclusively on the most delicious white rolls, filling ourselves with no nutritional content.

Please pay close attention to my wording.  The need for these things is the danger.  I would tell you the need to win and through winning prove who I was to myself and everyone else was the “it” that chewed on my entrails.

Is it bad to want to win?

It’s bad to need to win.  Needing to win can take us to very dark places.  Needing to win can quickly make the results of the competition more important than my opponent.  But as it turns out, my opponent is made in the image of God.  Often, our approach to winning can look a little too much like our approach to war: I need to dehumanize the enemy in order to be able to…  Valuing other people is more important than valuing victory.

I better repeat that, for myself and others who, I strongly suspect, know it’s for them:

Valuing other people is more important than valuing victory. 

I know there are a few folks who would read that and decide, “Written by a loser.”

Well, I won’t argue with you.  I’m trying to figure out how to reconcile my competitive drive with God’s values.  I feel very uncomfortable when I try to understand why I hate losing so much.  I think it’s because I don’t want others to see me that way.  I think it’s because I don’t want to see myself that way.

What way?

Lesser.

Going back to my history again, there was a time when the most agonizing arrangement for me in sports would be mixed-level competition.  I’m playing on a team with people of lesser ability, experience, or both, and I’m trying, I am really trying to include them,  pass to them, affirm them, value them above my need to win (which, if given priority, would require excluding them so that they don’t have the opportunity to screw up my game.  You get the tone.  It’s ugly.).  So I attempt a pass to someone, and I make sure not to throw it too hard, and–

BOOM!

My opponent,  a player of comparable ability who is guarding me, slams it to the ground!  On so many levels, ouch.  I look stupid.  I have just failed and damaged my team’s chance to win, I have been shown up by my competition (there’s always a game within the game, a comparison within the comparison), I have had my attempt at kindness and inclusion paid back with shame.  Sounds like I’m exaggerating?  Not the feeling.  Not even a little bit.  In fact, it should have more italics and exclamation points.  !!! 

I used to get so angry in those situations.

But at some point as I matured, like maybe six weeks ago, it occurred to me that if I was choosing to play at a different intensity level to include, then I didn’t have to count this on my cosmic scoreboard of greatness.  Sometime after that, it dawned on me that my cosmic scoreboard of greatness wasn’t that great of any idea in the first place.  I mean, biblically.

It took me a long time, but once I grasped that intellectually, the truth started to seep into my heart.  My wife has been telling me for about five years longer than we’ve been married (or nearly thirty years) that people are more important than winning.  I don’t know how this works for professional athletes. I’ve never been blessed or cursed with that level of ability.  But once it began to sink deeper that my value wasn’t decreasing when I played to include instead of exclusively to win, some long-silenced part of my brain whispered, “Maybe my value doesn’t decrease, even when I’m utterly playing to win.”

Now we’re nearly there.  Can you play a sport, or any competition, all out and not need to win?  I’m not saying be gleeful when you lose, but take it in stride, as my father used to say.  If we need to win to be greater and first and come out on top in the the comparison, then some internal part still clings to a belief that contradicts God’s Kingdom.  Jesus reveals a God who serves and elevates others and finally gives of himself.  I can play sports all out and worship that God, but I can’t play sports to prove that I am great and valuable and better than you while worshipping that God.  That sets me up for a future segment: I think the redemption of sports, and even of competition, is that playing is worship.  Do I glorify God and experience his joy when I compete?

 

It was probably clear all along, wasn’t it, that when we talk about competing and comparing, we aren’t just talking about sports?