The Anatomy of Losing

When I was nine years old, I played baseball for a team called the Orioles. Just like the real-life Baltimore Orioles, we wore goofy orange jerseys with a goofy orange bird on our caps. And just like the real-life Orioles of present-day, our team was horrible.

My god, did we suck. I think we may have won one game that year. We had too many right fielders, if you get my drift, and as a result we just failed, failed, and failed some more.

I wanted to quit about three times that year. Once before the season even got underway (maybe I sensed the suckiness, I don’t know), once after I got drilled by a fastball for the first time, and at least once more when the losses started mounting. My parents wouldn’t let me give up, though, and thus a beautiful nine-year playing career was spawned (sadly, I would retire at age 18 due to chronic inability to perform at a reasonably high level).

Being forced to overcome this trivial level of adversity (first-world problems, as the Twitterliterate would say) as a pre-pubescent instilled in me an absolute hatred for losing. I grew up never wanting to lose, never accepting defeat, and never viewing quitting as a viable recourse for a crappy situation. So naturally, every loss I’ve endured throughout my lifetime has made me a little bit more of a prick than I was before.

I bring all this up because my basketball team, the once-proud Athletic Supporters, cannot buy a win these days. And yes, I know how stupid it is to care this much about your rec hoop squad. But whatever. It is what it is.

The fact is, we’re downright awful. We can’t score, we can’t play defense, we can barely pass the ball without screwing up. It’s painful to watch, let alone experience as a member of the team.

The crazy thing is, we used to be really good. We won the league championship last season. We dominated fools. We were dynamic in every sense of the word. We put up one-hundred points…in a rec game! To say this downfall was unexpected would be an understatement. You can regress for any number of reasons. But when you’re prone to winning, you’re more apt to ignore the logic behind those reasons than you otherwise might be if you were accustomed to losing. And maybe that’s just the crux of it all.

The most painful thing about losing is that you never want to admit to yourself that things aren’t going well. It doesn’t matter if you’re down thirty points with a minute remaining in an all-but-decided contest. Until a buzzer sounds and someone tells you you can’t play anymore, you never think to give up or factor in the back of your mind that success is improbable, if not impossible. No one walks through life believing they’re going to lose. Even the most depressing individuals have to have some reason to keep on waking up every day. So if you’re here, if you’re reading this, if your heart’s still beating, then you certainly have some reason to live. And that means you believe in the possibility of success. No matter how bad things might seem.

Oddly enough, people always tell stories of triumph because it’s what we all want to believe in. Everyone, myself included, would rather devote their time to a story with a happy ending, as opposed to one where defeat prevails. It’s gotten to the point where the expected outcome of any tale is one of success. When you tell your friends about a movie you saw, for instance, you comment on expected or unexpected outcomes. And what we all gauge from an expected outcome is simple: success occurred for the protagonist. We like that. We thrive on that. We can deal with that.

So what happens when the reality of failure occurs in our everyday lives? We all deal with a loss differently.

Some of us throw things, get demonstrative, use our visible display of frustration as a way of projecting our pain unto others.

Some of us sulk, pout, whine, cry. We transfer that pain outward with our attitude, much like our angry friend does by throwing things.

And then there are those of us who simply don’t know what to do. Those of us, like me, who aren’t quite sure how to react when presented with defeat. Futility is unacceptable. So how is one who walked into this situation expecting success supposed to cope when presented with the unacceptable? It’s quite the predicament, but one which I’ve found a tourniquet for.

About eight years into my nine-year baseball career, I was playing for Bellevue High School when adversity presented itself again. Our team wasn’t doing much that season, and our head coach had us congregate in the locker room after a particularly crushing defeat. To make matters worse, a group of parents (who can be quite fickle, keep in mind) had recently pressured the administration to fire the very man about to speak to us. Their grounds for termination were as uncomplicated as the playing time — or lack thereof — that their child was receiving. Which is why, frankly, the politics of prep sports are stupid.

We slumped on lockers and benches around the room and waited for our coach to say something, expecting to get chewed out in the process. Strong-willed, slightly bombastic, and with an unflappable boast of confidence, I never anticipated tears in the eyes of this man. Nor did I expect him to level with us, addressing the reality of the situation bearing down on him, as well as the destitute nature of our current play. I thought we’d get yelled at, when in fact we got just the opposite.

Our coach spoke passionately about the fact that life, sometimes, isn’t always what we expect it to be. It just isn’t. And when we’re faced with failure, or at least the possibility of failure, we don’t always have to accept it, but we do have to move on.

We weren’t successful that day. We weren’t really successful that entire season. But our coach ended up keeping his job, and I swear to the heavens we walked out of that locker room on that spring evening and played harder over the ensuing weeks than we had ever played prior.

The things I learned on that particular day have always stuck with me.

One, you can lose but you don’t have to accept losing. When all you see in the back of your mind is victory, you’ll always be successful, even if you’re forced to take one step back for every two steps forward.

Two, you may not be the best at what you happen to be doing, but if you truly dedicate yourself to your craft, you can accomplish great things no matter the odds.

And finally, there’s this.

There’s really no single, solitary reason why we live. Everyone searches for the all-important meaning of life, but I’m convinced that the definition of one’s existence can be whatever any individual happens to want it to be. The one thing we all rely on, however, is belief in something. Maybe you believe in a religion, or a god, or a higher power. Maybe you believe in love, or destiny, or fate. Maybe you believe in a person, a place, a thing, an idea, or just the notion that the sun will rise when you get out of bed in the morning. The fact is, though, you believe in something. You, me, everybody. We believe in something.

And on that day, amidst glaring defeat, and through the emotion and passion of honest words, my coach gave me, at least, something to believe in. It was high school baseball. Stupid high school baseball. With a team that wasn’t even that great. And here was this guy who cared enough about us as people to lay everything on the line. He believed in us. As an educator, as a mentor, he believed in our collective group. There may have been some people in that room who didn’t reciprocate the emotion. But speaking on my own behalf, that much belief in me, despite all the tribulations of the setting, gave me reason to believe in the person delivering that faith.

Stories of success are our not-so-guilty pleasure. But perhaps it is the story of failure, of losing, that not only defines our character, but keeps us on this journey through life.

The anatomy of losing is quite difficult to comprehend. No one wants to give up. No one wants to relent or end up having to go through some amount of pain. But we all know at some point we’ll be forced to overcome a painful moment of resignation.

In that moment, we can stop and immerse ourselves in the direness of a shitty outcome. Or, we can find something to believe in.

I don’t always know how to react to defeat. But I do know that it helps to believe.

So no matter what it is you trust in, no matter what it might be that you stand for, believe in something and you can conquer anything.

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