In Honour of Losers

Our society has a tendency to embrace simplistic narratives about the world and our place in it. ‘Good versus evil’ would be one such example. Whether it is a hero battling a villain, or a ‘nation under God’ battling terrorism, there is no such thing as a person (or nation) that is inherently good, and one that is inherently bad. This way of framing life says little about the world, but much about how we think about it.

Another simplification that dominates how we look at ourselves and each other is to categorise some as ‘winners’ and others as ‘losers’, which is really just ‘good’ and ‘bad’ under another label.

The logic at work here is that life can be reduced to a single, all-encompassing matrix where competitors in the race can be ranked from lowest to highest (with medals handed out accordingly).

But, of course, life is not like this. It is a multiplex of many different races, occurring over unique and distinct terrains, with any number of competitors. There are races for fame, prestige, power, status, and rank. And while these receive the most coverage, there are other races occurring all the time. There is a race for who can be the most understanding friend, a race for who can stay calmest under pressure, a race for who can be the most attentive and loving in the face of overwhelmingly harsh and difficult circumstances.

But, the coverage given to certain races – such as the race for power or wealth – creates the impression, soon turning into an opinion, transforming into a belief; that these are the only races worth winning. In the process, we judge ourselves according to athletes we have no hope of contending with. One would not place a child against an Olympic runner and expect them to succeed, nor would one invite a fish and a monkey to a tree climbing race expecting a fair competition. We are not suited to every race in life. Our advantages in one area will become disadvantages in another.

In our more self-critical moments, we begin to feel like fish that have entered a tree climbing competition against monkeys. We feel like we are ill-equipped and unable to compete. Dejected, we blame ourselves. If only our fins were fingers with the necessary climbing dexterity. But, it would be helpful to remember, that if the competition was a swim across the Bass Strait, we would be feeling very different.

We have people in our lives who we think are doing better than ourselves. They may already own houses, go on fabulous holidays every year, be in long term committed relationships, or never suffered the loss of a loved one. We look on at these people and think to ourselves that they are truly winning at life. But on closer inspection, this might not really be the case.

You might not own a house, and have grown up in poverty. But that has given you a appreciation of small pleasure that perhaps your wealthy friend does not have. Another friend may go on fabulous holidays every year, surround themselves with all sorts of pleasures, and spend their days in supreme entertainment. But, they might be less adept at being alone than you, someone who does not have the money to spend every waking moment busy with pleasure. Your friend may never have experienced the severely painful experience of losing a loved one or having a family member struck down with cancer. But you have developed a resilience borne out of suffering that your friend does not have. While another friend is having a party of life, you may have developed depression; but as a result, you may develop an appreciation of life that is profoundly deeper than someone who has never felt the crushing emotional toll of loss as you have. You lost one race, but you certainly won another.

Someone who wins at being a ruthless businessperson will likely lose in the race to be an attentive and understanding partner. Someone who wins the race for prestige and fame will be a loser in the race to be humble and empathetic in the face of someone else’s pain. We simply cannot be winners at everything, which means, likewise, we cannot be losers at everything either.

You are not a loser. It would be far more accurate (and fairer) to note that you may be a loser here, but that only makes you a winner there. If we can begin to realise that life is a multitude of races, and that we will lose some, but win some also, then perhaps we can redeem ourselves in our own eyes and realise that we are not totally losers at all but sometimes flawed and other times excellent humans who are good at some things, and not others.

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