Life is full of loss and failure. Victories, too, but there’s an amorphous quality to most of it. You kind of win and kind of lose, or you “win some and lose some”. A door closes and a window opens. But thumbs up or thumbs down, it’s how we see things. We start a business and it’s either a success or a failure. We make money or we don’t. We win the girl or we don’t. Either we get an award or we’re given a DUI, sometimes both in a week.
If you’re sitting zen you try to leave all this aside. You breathe, you just are. But for most of us we’re soon back in the flow, back in contention, trying to get ahead, trying to get something, trying to win and often losing.
Last spring I failed to get an agent for my latest novel. It was a blow—I’ve published four books and this has only happened once before. I can still rewrite the novel, and will. Things might work out in the end. But pretty much, I know what success will look like, and failure.
Consider some other stories, ones I think about often:
You win admission to Harvard, a great coup, then find that such a large and elitist school is probably not the right place for you, and you suffer because of it.
You marry an impulsive and sensual woman who seems just the one you need, and three years later she tumbles into schizophrenia.
If you’re my father, you marry “the prettiest girl in the office”. She becomes a doctor, you raise two sons, you are often a happy family, and in the twentieth year of your marriage your wife falls in love with someone else. You divorce.
You’re a 47-year-old woman when your daughter, the light of your life, dies at 14 in a car crash. You are beyond miserable. You die yourself, of cancer, only three years later.
You have a son who collapses on the beach when he’s less than than a year old. Together, for the next 13 years, you fight his leukemia. Then he dies. You go on, because you must. You have won a great deal, but lost everything.
You grow up in the fifties and sixties, a champion in all things. You’re a tennis and soccer and lacrosse star, you go to Exeter and Harvard, where you graduate as one of four Class Marshalls. You win a Fiske Scholarship and read Architecture at Cambridge. The trouble is, you are gay. You’ve been born in the wrong decade to be openly gay, and when some friends discover the truth you turn on the gas in your English apartment and kill yourself at 22.
You grow up as a boy in Dayton, but in fact you are a girl. If only the world had been more accepting then, as it is now, of variations in gender. But it was not, and you stifle how you really are. You survive up to your metamorphosis when you’re almost fifty, and then, after what seemed like a lifetime of defeats, you start living your honest life. This is victory.
Humans are oriented to winning and losing, it’s how we see things. Consider that critical Christian moment, the decision about your afterlife: God has been keeping the tabulations, all your deeds have been recorded, and on that basis you either gain admission to Heaven or must descend to Hell. All else pales beside this mighty win or loss.
In sports we find a pure distillation of the struggle. Sure, it’s how you play the game that counts, or so they say. And certainly there are games or sports or physical activities that don’t involve victory or defeat. You can ski down the face of a mountain or sail across the Caribbean or swim laps in a pool—but when you come down to real sports you enter the world of competition. Sports, I think, stand in for all the larger competitions we don’t want to think of as pitched battles.
I am a fan of the Ohio Volleyball team. This is a first for me. When I was a kid I followed the Brooklyn Dodgers. Later I wanted my high school football team to win, and I’ve rooted for the Cleveland Browns and the U.S. soccer team. But with Ohio Volleyball I am a fan, fully subject to both elation and misery.
A week ago it was elation, when we knocked off the high-flying Oregon Ducks. Last night it was misery, as we lost to North Carolina.
It was the manner of losing that made it so painful. If we had lost three straight sets to the Tar Heels, having fought a hard battle in each, we would all have been unhappy. But not distraught, not completely undone as we were last night. Almost 4000 people showed up for the match. Most stayed through the end and most cheered hard—especially when we were winning. Everyone saw us collapse.
We took the first set after a prolonged duel. We earned the win at the very end, we were finishers, we were exultant. In the second set North Carolina fell apart. They made crazy mistakes, they couldn’t execute, we hit .500 and crushed them 25-16. The teams went back to their locker rooms for the break. We talked in the stands, talked about how we would rise in the rankings with this gorgeous victory. But first we had to take the third set of five.
NC opened the third game with an ace. Their second serve was an ace. You will see it on the video when I get it made, point by point, the start of our self-destruction. No question, the Tar Heels are a good team. The more they won, the more animated they became. We fell and fell. By the last set we looked defeated. We were defeated.
Afterward, desolation. Cricket and I walked past the locker room. Just a quarter-second glance, but I’m sure that room was permeated by desolation. In a volleyball match we channel all of life’s competition into a clear win or loss. We know exactly how we have done.
Perhaps we love sports for this reason—those of us who do love sports. There are many (who won’t be reading this) who think the whole sports obsession is ridiculous. May they follow their own tranquil path—though I’m sure they consider their own losses and defeats, all the time. But for the fans among us, there is something about competitive sports that grips us. That wrings us.
We suffer when Chelsea B. goes down on the court, writhing in pain. We want her to walk, to jump, to go up in the air and hit the ball as hard as anyone in the MAC. We are miserable that she cannot do this now, today.
Still, you know what comes next. The next match. The glory of our win against Oregon fades. The misery of our loss to North Carolina fades. And right now it must be put aside fast, because at three this afternoon we face the Dayton Flyers. It’s another match we really want to win. While we’re playing, it will be what we most want to do, the match we have most wanted to win, ever.
It’s a bit like zen meditation, actually. We’ll be dropping deep into it, we’ll be fully absorbed, we won’t be thinking about other wins or other losses. There will be only Dayton and the desire to win this one, now.