Thursday, August 9, 2012

The prize of not winning

I have lost wrestling matches and done my part to lose soccer games.  I have failed to pole vault successfully and not won prizes in bingo. Of course, any time I compete or enter a contest, I would like to win.  But I can see that not winning is a gift.

To understand the gift and its meaning, it is helpful to watch little children play a competitive sport or game of chance.  Of course, little children can have difficulty with concentrating on winning against an opponent, who may not appear to be as interesting as that flower over there.  But engage them in a game of chance and you can witness irrational exuberance about victory soon to come.

Like much of the rest of the world, we watched McKayla Maroney on the vault while the sportscaster could not stop repeating how certain it was that the young gymnast would be unbeatable, that the only rational question was how much better than her competition her own score would be.  If you watched, you know that she fell in a difficult move and that she won a silver medal, a fraction behind gold medal winner Sandra Izbasa of Romania.  Izbasa seemed as shocked as everyone else.  Everyone seemed to "know" that Maroney had the gold in her pocket and that performing was only a formality.  

Miss Maroney seemed as dignified and upright as could be expected at such a twist, maybe more so.  Still, it seems to me that she won a gift of great value.  I have heard that it can be very valuable to fail when one is young.  It is an early chance to see that life often holds something other than what is desired, that one can proceed to rise up and try again, often better later.  This is usually called something like "learning to take life's knocks" or "learning to fall down and get up again."  I wouldn't be surprised if some psychologists or development experts haven't already studied about what age we might have to reach before we know strong exuberance is not sufficient to create victory, even while we feel very, very hopeful of a win.

My friend loves basketball and has played in all sorts of leagues and levels but he remarks on the irony of being the winner or the loser in a game with a score of 123 to 121.  Often, in our sports, we need sophisticated and expensive equipment to tell us who won or who looked like they did too, but were .01 seconds later.

I read a chess book in college that ended with a salute to all those who have played chess and lost, without whom we would have no winners.  St. Paul famously said in First Corinthians 9:24 "Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize?"  It is very nice of all those athletes to practice all those years and travel all those miles just so someone can be a winner.  Thanks to them all!

For touching and lovely writing on not winning, please see the always insightful and lilting Karen Maezen Miller on the subject.

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