There have been plenty of storylines from our blissfully dysfunctional government in the last week that are good fodder for criticism. There’s value in that kind of critique.
The friction of competing ideas is what (if things are functioning properly) keeps our republic from going too far afield in either direction. But, whether it is in politics or our personal and spiritual strivings, I think it’s worth stepping back to consider what it means to win, and — more importantly — what it means to win through losing.
Everybody loves a winner. And, everybody loves to win.
I acknowledge there are those out there who are afflicted with either self-loathing or a self-destructive addiction to pity who may actually like to lose.
But, for simplicity’s sake, let’s stick with those who are naturally attracted to the winner’s circle.
Our society is naturally drawn to the winner. From sports to academics, and in that dirtiest of arenas, politics, we inherently seek success for ourselves and we emulate those who have captured victory, hoping on some level to live vicariously through their glory.
This is a natural inclination. It is entirely fitting we seek victory in all of life’s undertakings, great and small.
Our society should be built on the premise that every citizen has the right to seek personal rewards through honest labor. Our republic was founded on the concept that collective strength comes from the individual’s desire to succeed (though we still fall short of guaranteeing equality of opportunity in that regard).
Wherever we fall in the political spectrum, I think we can all agree it is preferable to win than to lose. And, I hope we as a society find a way to balance our lust for success with the higher calling of caring for our neighbors and lifting up among us those less fortunate.
But, how do we deal with failure? What happens when we find ourselves in the loser’s bracket? I could belabor this question with a myriad of sports metaphors (feel free to inject a few of your own), but the point I want to get to is this: our individual and collective mettle is defined far more comprehensively by our response to the barbs of defeat than by our embrace of the laurels of victory.
Victory, once it is achieved, is easy to carry, but hard to maintain. To be an honorable victor, one must only possess humility paired with gracious and just treatment of the vanquished.
Defeat, on the other hand, is far harder to carry off successfully. Sound like an oxymoron? Perhaps, but I submit to you it is not only possible but essential to learn how to lose successfully.
No, I am not proposing a neo-hippy attitude of “we’re all winners and nobody should lose,” nor am I subscribing to an indifferent fatalism.
What I mean by “losing successfully” is this: we gain victory through defeat when we learn how to push past our many small losses (we all have them) in pursuit of a greater win.
Better yet, we can learn to bend individual losses to our advantage, to find in every defeat a new avenue to a greater victory.
Maybe an example will help illustrate my point. For this I turn to the greatest insurgent leader, and one of the most successful losers, from our nation’s history: George Washington.
When it came to fighting the British, Washington lost almost every tactical engagement of the war. By the standards of the day, he had one of the worst tactical records of any commanding general.
But, Washington’s genius lies not in his ability to tactically win the day, but rather in his strategic ability to keep coming back for the next day.
He knew how to find in every defeat the path to a greater victory. You could say Washington was a tremendously successful loser.
For a more personal example, none of us need look further than our own pursuit of spiritual improvement.
In this pursuit, whatever our particular tradition, we strive to follow an example of perfection. And we come up woefully short — at least, I do.
But, our growth is not in the attainment — which is, in this life, impossible — but in the constant striving, through each failure, toward perfection. Very few of us would think ourselves saints. But, to paraphrase St. Josemaría Escrivá, a saint is simply a sinner who keeps trying.
St. Josemaría Escriva
At one time or another, we all are going to lose, whether spiritually, professionally or personally. Our true success as individuals and as a society, however, lies not in the outcome of any single contest.
There will always be another test through which we must persevere. The true measure of our character lies not in how we carry victory, but in how we persevere through and find success in defeat.
In the end, the ability to lose successfully will always outshine even the greatest single victories, and overcome even the worst single defeats.