Weekly Edgework #97 - June 5, 2006

Winners and Losers

Winning is the most boring thing in life. (David Remnick, Editor or The New Yorker Magazine.)

True joy is hidden where we are the same as other people: fragile and mortal. (Bread for the Journey, by Henri Nouwen.)

At first flush it would appear that being a winner is much more preferable to being a loser. In fact this is the message we are bombarded with on a daily basis. For example, we are told that true satisfaction comes with being independently wealthy. As an economic winner you can rise above the interdependence economic losers need to rely on. You can do what you want, where you want, when you want. And crowds go wild when their favorite sports team wins a tournament. Players are carried on shoulders, showered with awards and interviewed on national television. The losing team is ignored by news reporters as it slinks away to its dressing room to disappear from sight along with their fans.

You win the highest honors in your class and your heart warms to the applause of friends and family. After all you are smarter than all the others. You win a medal in a swimming competition and you proudly step to the podium to receive your medal as the national anthem is played. After all you are the fastest swimmer in sight. You win a beauty contest and you flash your winning smile at adoring fans as you receive your crown. After all, you are the most beautiful person within hundreds of miles. So let’s admit that winning brings with it a burst of joy, or at least a pleasant adrenaline rush.

But now what? Now that you and everyone else know that you are the best in your field, what is your next step? Well, you can bask in the afterglow of your victory for a while. Hang your medals on your bedroom wall and look at them many times a day. Attend a few victory parties and sort through your fan mail. And that’s when the difficulties of your predicament – which you have not yet admitted to – begin to set in. No longer are you just one of the crowd. Everyone thinks they know you and wants a piece of your time and attention. And that feels good – for a while. Soon you look back with longing to the days when you were “just one of the guys.” But you have a permanent tattoo on your forehead now which is hard to hide.

And with the tattoo comes the expectation to “strut your stuff” again and again. You are now under pressure to do as well or better on your next round. How embarrassing for a winner to lose on the second round! Fans are fickle. They may love you today, but dump you tomorrow if you don’t hold up your end of the new social contract you are now tied to. Winners often become driven people who place unrealistic expectations on themselves in order to keep up their winning image.

If, in fact, you continue being a winner for too long you are only a stone’s throw away from the possibility of developing a sense of entitlement. Since you are better than everyone else – at least in one field – you can hoist a chip onto your shoulder with impunity and begin throwing your weight around. Winners must keep moving and don’t usually have time nor the inclination to reflect deeply about the things in life that really matter. And so in the end “Winning becomes the most boring thing in life,” as David Remnick says. It seems to me that only rarely does winning it big contribute toward a healthy and joyful lifestyle.

By contrast, Henri Nouwen suggests that, True joy is hidden where we are the same as other people: fragile and mortal. It is the joy of belonging to the human race. It is the joy of being with others as a friend, a companion, a fellow traveler. Winners are given their identity, often internalizing it as well, on the basis of being different than others. They are in a class by themselves where loneliness often overshadows the temporary joy that winning gave them. While non-winners are frequently classified as losers, Nouwen suggests that perhaps they are most blessed.

It is a truism that it is usually “losers” who retain the ability to reflect deeply about who they are, what their role in life should be and how they might balance life in healthy ways. In that sense they actually are the true winners. They find it easier to identify with other ordinary human beings who have never made it to the podium. And it is not that hard to open their hearts to fellow pilgrims, and discover the pure joy of being invited into the heart of another.

And, at least from my perspective, apparent “losers” find it much easier to be realistic about the nature of the human condition – not afraid to reflect and discuss frailty and mortality. It is easier for them to accept the fact that all of life entails a series of losses – that like the grass withers and the flower fades, so they too must eventually exit center stage. Winners often must be snatched unwillingly off stage from the sidelines because, having become used to being winners, they fear the ultimate loss that inevitably overshadows us all. “Losers” generally find it easier to move toward the edge of the stage willingly as they graciously accept the losses that come their way.

By all counts Christ became a loser according to societal standards. Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (Philippians 2:6-7). Emmanuel. God with us. A God unafraid to touch our frailty and enter into the region of our hearts. An example for us to follow. In God’s embrace losers become winners as they in turn embrace the fullness of life.