“Victory has a thousands fathers but defeat is an orphan.” --John F. Kennedy
Yes, I would have rather seen my team win. Let’s make that very clear. I would have rather jumped up off the couch at the end of the Super Bowl as a last moment Patriots’ drive pulled off another miracle. Would have rather cheered until I was hoarse when a receiver made an impossibly difficult catch to seal the victory. Would have rather watched with glee as the Patriots hoisted another championship trophy in a snowstorm of red, white and blue confetti.
But that didn’t happen. Last Sunday night, when the Pats lost in an angst filled, back and forth, heart breaking thriller of a game, there was the mightiest of collective groans around New England. Sighs. Head shaking. Hats pulled over faces in grim acceptance. Even a few tears from diehard fans.
At the Super Bowl party I attended a middle school youth I watched the game with was so crushed by the loss that he dissolved into tears in his mother’s arms, inconsolable. This was his first sports fan heartbreak, maybe even his first significant life defeat. The first time he knew what it is like to really wish for something dear or hope for something precious or work for something significant or strive for something desired and then to lose. To be vanquished in spite of your best effort, best energy, best prayers even. The game is over and we are on the wrong end of the score.
That’s just the truth about life, whether on a sports field or in any meaningful human endeavor. In order for someone to win, another has to lose. If someone is picked, then another is passed over. The line between tears and sorrow and joy and laughter is a fine one. Tried for that great job but never got a second interview. Pursued a love and had my heart broken. Submitted a work of art yet never made it past the judges. Trained for months but came in second.
Loss just is, so how do we as humans respond to the inevitability of failure? Perhaps that’s the most important question to consider, and not just in the wake of the loss of a mere football game, but also for all the losses which make up our existence. Loss is just a given. If you care enough deeply about an idea, if you are blessed by God to find something or someone to be passionate about, if you try your best and have the guts to jump right into the scrum of life, some days you will just lose. You’ll fail. You’ll be beaten. That’s non-negotiable.
That’s not a very popular truth to name, how to accept losing and even learn how to lose well. I’m embargoing all sports newspaper sections and sports talk radio this week because of our cultural bias to always lionize the winners and rip to shreds the “losers”. Millions of words have already been written and spoken about the Pats and guaranteed most of those opinions will be about blame, finger pointing, and even shame. The only thing worse than a sore winner is a sore loser.
No, instead this is the spiritual advice I’d give my fellow Pats fan and middle school friend, about the loss on Sunday night, all losses. Don’t just focus on the final score. Celebrate the fact that the game was played and played very well, down to the last second. Give thanks that you care deeply and are loyal to the things which matter most to you. At the end of the struggle, no matter what the outcome, take pride in the fact that the people you cheered for left it all on the field and gave it their absolute best effort. That is what life is finally all about. Not just winning but striving always, stretching, pushing, trying.
To lose and lose well and yet not be defeated. Theodore Roosevelt knew great loss. Awful personal loss: in one day his beloved mother and his wife both died. Bitter political loss: after having triumphantly served as President, he was trounced in an independent bid for the Presidency. He struggled all his life with chronic asthma and terrible eye sight and yet he showed up every day to play and to fight and to compete.
As he declared, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
Sometimes we just lose. The choice is ours: will we be defeated?