When it comes to sports, I’ve been a loser my whole life.
My record as a pitcher on my high school baseball team was 2-5. And as far as I can remember, our church basketball team didn’t win a game in the several seasons we played. Now, of course, me and my walker are lucky if we make it the two blocks to the Brown Cow for an ice cream cone without having to stop for a rest.
Being a loser is no fun in a society that values winning above everything else. My relationship with my dad is one example. My dad was good at everything he did, including sports. He made a hole-in-one at the Lincoln Fields golf course in Manitowoc the day after I was born and won several county golf tournaments in Wisconsin where I grew up. He and I didn’t play catch; we worked on pitching. He even built a pitching mound in our backyard.
He had high expectations for me, which I never lived up to. It sucks to disappoint your father.
Our society is obsessed with winning, with being the best. Dr. Ray Williams, for example, in a 2016 post on the Psychology Today website wrote, “America has an obsession with defining success and happiness by winners and losers. This attitude and behavior permeates everything from sports to politics and business and does more harm than good.”
Tony Schwartz, in a 2012 post on the Harvard Business Review website, argued, “We’ve defined winning in a way that promises far more than it can deliver. We push children who show a glimmer of talent to focus on one sport, before they’re teenagers, and even to sacrifice their bodies, so that they might become champions. We tell teenagers that the key to success is getting into a top-rated college even though there are hundreds of schools at which it’s possible to get a great education. When they graduate, society tells them that a key measure of achievement is financial success, and too often they pursue it, believing that more and more money will eventually translate into happiness.”
President Trump got elected partly because his Vince Lombardi brand of “winning is the only thing” attitude resonated with millions of people in our country. Here are some of the things the reality show host has said in public:
“My whole life is about winning. I almost never lose.”
“I don’t like losers.”
“I’ve always said, ‘If you need Viagra, you’re probably with the wrong girl.'”
“I’ve always won, and I’m going to continue to win. And that’s the way it is.”
“A lot of people don’t like to win. They actually don’t know how to win … because deep down inside they don’t want to win.”
A commentator named Toure, who writes for the Daily Beast, was talking about how right-wing pundits attack black athletes for, in one way or another declaring that black lives matter, because they are rich — because they are winners financially.
“But my real question is this,” he wrote. “Why is a player’s large paycheck a critical part of the argument and why is it used as a disqualifier? This is a particularly bizarre sentiment in America, where having lots of money is, in and of itself, proof of your importance. In this country, we’re taught to listen to people who have money just because they have money. The only reason why anyone listened to Trump in the decades before he was president is because he was wealthy.”
I’m trying to swim against the prevailing cultural current of “winning is everything,” partly because I’m 70 years old and the life expectancy for a white male is 76.7 years. That means I have statistically about 8 percent of my life ahead of me.
And you think turning 40 got your attention!
Part of getting older includes losing — strength, memory, friends, the functioning of body parts. The six guys in my men’s group — our average age is about 70 — have lost some mental capacity due to traumatic brain injury, suffered a broken heel, and have had something go wrong with just about every body part in between.
If we don’t learn how to lose, we’re in trouble. Eventually, of course, all of us will die. Longevity is one game all of us will lose.
When I was a pastor, I visited a guy dying of cancer at Oak Park Hospital. We talked and prayed together, and as I was leaving he said, “Don’t tell my wife that I’m dying.” Ten steps later I met his wife in the hall who said to me, “Don’t tell my husband that he’s dying.”
I don’t want to live like that. I don’t want to die like that. Thanks to the job I did for 30 years, I was blessed to watch many of my church members teach me how to be a loser.
I was able to see people die well. I watched members show me how to lose without experiencing it as a failure. Jo Wojtkiewicz, for example, was dying of cancer. She asked me to come to her hospital room and let her plan her own funeral. She picked the hymns and the readings and listened to me say her name wherever there was a blank in the service.
“That’s it?” she asked when we were finished. “That’s it,” I replied. She leaned back, putting her head on the pillow for about 10 seconds with a peaceful, satisfied look on her face. Then she leaned forward again and said enthusiastically, “Now let’s plan the reception!”
I watched our church members go through the decline, and eventual closing, of our congregation with grace and purpose. Realizing that our time in this village was past, they more or less gave the church building to the Thai congregation, which comprised immigrants just like the Germans who organized the congregation in 1879 had been.
Our obsession with winning hasn’t made us happy. According to the United Nations ranking of the happiest nations in the world we come in at 14.
Here’s the paradox: Learning to lose well might just move us out of our fantasies into reality and thereby make us all happier.