Losing To Win

It's How You Play the Game
By Mike Bellah

"It's not whether you win or lose; it's how you play the game," my dad used to tell my brothers and me, usually after we lost some sporting event. But we never believed it. In the first place, all my friends' dads told them the same thing and they didn't believe it either; and, we suspected, neither did the dads or coaches who proffered the advice. Most of us believed more in the philosophy of the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers. "Winning isn't everything," Vince Lombardi is supposed to have said; "It's the only thing."

So like most American boys I grew up believing that second best is never good enough. How many collegiate crowds do you hear chanting "We're number two?" Even a tie was unacceptable: "like kissing your sister," said my junior high football coach.

I expect that some of this fierce competitiveness is good for young men. It pushes us to our full potential and helps us succeed in a world where only the fittest survive. Yet there is a dark side to the winning-is-everything philosophy. If for me to win others must lose, too much competitiveness can cause me to hurt my fellow human beings. If I'm not equally concerned with how the game is played, I may cheat those stronger than me and take advantage of those who are weaker.

Healthy competition helped build this great nation, but the green-mailers and insider-trading artists of the '80s are good examples of what happens when winning becomes the only thing. At midlife I am especially concerned with the personal toll extracted by this philosophy. My peers speak of themselves as hamsters on a treadmill running as fast as they can but always coming up short.

I suspect that the feeling springs from an overemphasis on competitiveness. That's why I was interested in a 1993 book by Howell Raines, a Pulitzer Prize winner and editorial page editor of The New York Times. In Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis Raines likens life to his favorite sport, an activity where he has ceased to be competitive.

Raines once kept a fishing log where he recorded the numbers and sizes of his catch. Then one day his mentor and friend Dick Blalock challenged him: "I don't believe in keeping count," he said. "If you're going to keep score you might as well be on a golf course." Raines contemplated his friend's advice: "What would happen if upon raising a trout one immediately feigned indifference to its capture? What if one set out not to land the fish, but simply to prevent it from breaking the line?"

Raines discovered what psychologists call the value of process. At midlife "a man may continue to seek excellence," writes Dr. Daniel Levinson in The Seasons of a Man's Life, "but he gains more intrinsic enjoyment from the process and product of his efforts and he is less concerned with recognition and power."

What would happen if you and I stopped keeping score with things like salaries, promotions, influential friends, physical looks and abilities, and material possessions? What if we "feigned indifference" to recognition and reward? What if instead we let ourselves celebrate the process? With the pressure to be number one gone, might we not enjoy life more? Perhaps life would enjoy us more too.

At midlife it's time to stop keeping score in everything we do; it's time to relax and enjoy living as well as achieving. It's time to believe what our dads once told us: It is how we play the game that counts.

In this great game called life we are all called to win no matter how unwilling participants many of us may be. The only rule is: Choose life and you will live. By participating we win, by declining we lose.

[Deuteronomy 30:19] I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your seed.

[Proverbs 11:19] He who is truly righteous gets life. He who pursues evil gets death.

[Proverbs 13:14] The law of the wise is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death.

Thus, losing our old wicked ways of doing things is to win the race of life.

The night is almost over, and the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us now walk honestly, as in the day; not anymore in the ways of darkness.