If win­ning looks like this, let’s hear it for the losers

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion - Emma Brockes

There is a large body of lit­er­a­ture, and a grow­ing num­ber of pod­casts, de­voted to the psy­chol­ogy of los­ing – or “fail­ure”, as it’s more likely to be called in Amer­ica, a term with very lit­tle to rec­om­mend it. Los­ing in the English sense – oh, how im­pec­ca­bly English that no­tion is: Cap­tain Oates trudg­ing off to his death with a stiff “I may be some time”, or Cap­tain Smith go­ing down with the Ti­tanic. In Amer­ica, de­feat is Willy Lo­man in Death of a Sales­man: a sad man in a cheap suit for whom there is no pos­si­ble chance of redemp­tion.

Viewed from abroad this week, these two ver­sions of fail­ure – of no­bil­ity in de­feat, and of the Amer­i­can term “loser” – crashed up against each other via the jux­ta­po­si­tion of Eng­land’s foot­ball loss with Don­ald Trump’s visit to Bri­tain. The world is a mess, there are heat­waves on both sides of the At­lantic, and we’re all very tired and emo­tional. Still, it was hard not to be moved by a sense of com­pet­ing cos­mic forces when re­gard­ing Gareth South­gate and his boys – shaking hands with the Croa­t­ians, re­turn­ing home not as fail­ures but as vic­tors in the larger sense – along­side the spite­ful lit­tle man from the White House.

Los­ing and tak­ing it on the chin is a rite of pas­sage mod­ern par­ent­ing seems con­sis­tently to get wrong. “It’s the tak­ing part that counts” – a homily no one be­lieved in the 70s, and no one be­lieves now – was nonethe­less held up as an ideal that, it is of­ten said, has been pushed aside by the ethos of prizes for all.

This only half holds up. It’s true that the school sys­tem in the US is fond of hand­ing out cer­tifi­cates sim­ply for show­ing up. But most par­ents I know still try to hose their kids down with a stern life les­son when they throw a tantrum af­ter los­ing at Mo­nop­oly.

Still, if any good what­so­ever should come from Trump’s pres­i­dency it may be this: the moral, writ large, of what hap­pens to a per­son when they have a cast-iron in­abil­ity to lose. This is what “win­ning” at all costs looks like: it is or­ange and fatu­ous and prone to tantrums. It lies and cheats. It de­spises those who, in a cul­ture in which the ones who win do so largely be­cause they were born in the right place at the right time, flunk these tests.

Along with hav­ing no hu­mil­ity or grat­i­tude or un­der­stand­ing of where luck in­ter­sects with ef­fort, it is ugly and blames its short­com­ings on oth­ers. It is also disin­gen­u­ous. Los­ing as a pre­cur­sor to suc­cess – a great linch­pin of the self-help in­dus­try – is one of those sneaky bits of mo­ti­va­tional psy­chol­ogy that tries to have its cake and eat it, in the process mak­ing fail­ure as a con­cept so in­tol­er­a­ble as to barely ex­ist.

It can’t be like this. Los­ing in and of it­self has to have in­tegrity, lead­ing to noth­ing less than a state of grace. I sound a bit pious say­ing that, but that’s how it felt this week – like a mo­ment in time we might look back on and say: this, and not that, is who we are try­ing to be.

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