(This column ran originally February 6, 2011, in The Times and The News-Star.)
“Athletics provide one of the best preparations for the darkness a human life can throw at you.” — Southern-based writer Pat Conroy in My Losing Season
I agree with Conroy: losing teaches you how to deal with pain. (It hurts me to say that.)
We’re not talking exclusively about losing on the scoreboard, as the Pittsburgh Steelers will do today in the Super Bowl. (Green Bay by 4!) (Editor’s Note: Green Bay won by 6, 31-25.)
We’re talking everyday losses. A hang nail, the finger’s silent assassin.
Hot coffee spilled in the car on the inside of your thigh. Sweet.
Cutting your head on the corner of an open kitchen cabinet door. I hate a kamikaze cabinet.
Or the kingpin of them all: hitting your little toe on the steel leg of a bunk bed at church camp.
There’s always cussing at church camp because somebody always hits their toe.
But you learn, and limp on.
Tough break that we live and limp forward, but learn backward.
There are all “kinds” of losing. Losing your keys. Losing a tooth. Losing your mind.
But you usually get another chance in those cases. Not always so in the competitive arena. Nothing hurts worse than losing The Big Game. You don’t get another chance, not at that one, not on that day.
Super Bowl Sunday’s a decent illustration. A big winner is celebrated and a big loser does what most all big losers do. They get really small and really forgotten really fast.
Ask the New Orleans Saints. Last year, toast of the town. This Super Sunday, the Saints will not be defending a Super Bowl title for the 45th year in a row. (Seattle? Seriously?!)
Bet they’ll be better next year. Ask pros who really care or competitive amateurs and they’ll tell you that the pain of losing is always greater, more motivating, than the thrill of winning. Winning teaches you how to uncork champagne and smile. Losing teaches you where to shore up your defenses, how to plan better, who you really are when things fall apart.
I’ve always found the more compelling stories are in the losing locker room, not the winning one. Losers are more real, emotion more acute.
In the academic world of leaky manifolds and underground sewerage systems and computer programming, I’m on the outside looking in. But when the subject is losing, well, that’s right in my wheelhouse. I have certificates, even official framed documents. Everything but a tattoo.
You probably do to. You know about losing like a plow knows about dirt. Like a wing knows wind. We know about losing the way a bug knows about a windshield.
Some, like me, are slow learners. I’m coachable, just not very quick. But a bit of experience in losing will teach you that you can handle more than you thought, that the sun will come up if you can hang in there, and that whatever price you have to pay to win, it will be worth it to avoid the feeling of losing again.
Fumbling won’t win you any trophies, but it can toughen you up. Good thing, because in everyday life, you face third-and-long a lot more often than third-and-short. Athletic disaster truly can help prepare you for losing someone close, for a pink slip, for foreclosure.
Regardless, you want to be in the arena, don’t you? Stay in the game. It’s small consolation and a wide chasm, but the next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing.