On winning and losing

"I never lose," the young and beautiful athlete tells the camera. And you could not help yourself but believe her. Here is someone with a history of success well beyond her years. She clearly is what many aspire to be these days, a "winner".

But, permit my relative old age to speak back to her. In my experience, which doubles hers chronologically, there are only two types of people who never lose: the prescient and the cowards. I wish I had been the one interviewing her because I would have like to push her a little bit on this.

The coward never loses because he never competes or fights. You cannot lose without entering the arena, be that the romantic arena, the intellectual arena, the athletic arena. In fact, there is a case to be made that this applies even to the spiritual arena. Old St. Paul himself obviously saw parallels between holiness and athletic achievement, notably the classic Greek sports of sprinting and boxing. As an aside, what can I make of his silence over wrestling? Or even archery. But I digress.

Some may object and say that cowards are de facto standards for losers. Being a coward is to forfeit every game. This is also very Classical in its approach, very Greek if not Roman.

But I wonder. If I absolutely refuse to enter the game, how can I be said to be forfeiting? Are not true games by definition things which I can enter voluntarily. Can I be conscripted into a game? And would forfeiting such an involuntary game be considered "losing"?

One thing I have noticed of cowards – they are full of bravado, they are full of passion. Think of pacifist demonstrations. Most times this conjures up images of riots. Why is it? Because the coward wants to change the game. You see, the coward does not want to play, and especially does not want to play a game they are guaranteed to lose! For the more belligerent and bellic minded, pacifists are yellow-bellied cowards. The fighters are, of course, the best of society. While those who refuse to fight are, at best cowards, at worst traitors. But from the coward’s position, the "brave" are simply morons. They are rushing out to get killed. They are suicidal. Plain and simple.

The other alternative is prescience. That is more interesting, but from my perspective, less obvious. I have known very few people who were wise enough to pick only those fights they could win. Perhaps our young athlete means it this way. She is successful in one sport, not all sports. She is, without a doubt, aware of that, and would never presume to claim she could defeat another top athlete in a sport she has no training in. So what she means by success, what all prescients mean by success, is this very narrowly defined field of play, which is carefully chosen to favor my strengths.

I have met such people in business. They are formidable in their areas, and recognized as such. They will also do their best to steer every opportunity towards their own strengths. They are master negotiators, and sometimes master manipulators.

Any success in fields like engineering must come from this prescience. It is nothing magical (there is more magic in cowardice than prescience!) It does require a lot of hard work and knowledge. Knowledge of one’s strengths, knowledge of one’s field of expertise, knowledge of the conditions.

No rushing into battle blindly. No building skyscrapers on quicksand. Methodical, careful, analytical. Those lead to prescience. Avoiding the most predictable negative outcomes. Given some time, enough elbow grease, and that particular unethical (or rather ethic-less) humility which comes from objectivity, anyone should be able to, as the song goes, "know when to hold and when to fold."

Which type of "winner" is our young athlete? My guess is that she meant the second. But a funny thing happens when she speaks with so much bravado – she sounds like the first type. I am guessing that the usual psychological reversal is true here: those who act tough are protecting something fragile. This is a pattern quite common in over-achievers: they compensate.

But this completely artificial dichotomy still begs the question: what to do with someone who is neither full of cowardly bravado, nor exhibits the calculated humility of the prescient. What to do, in short, with someone who turns the other cheek? Is that losing? Is that winning?

One more option: how about the one person who is so balanced that they are able to avoid compensatory behavior altogether? Is this possible? To be so self-possessed as to see no need to deny, fear, avoid, or hide weakness, and at the same time to never turn life into a simple win-lose calculus.

That person I want to meet!


About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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