Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Thin Line Between Victory and Loss

I had never heard of Lolo Jones before the final of the women's 100m hurdles in Beijing. The short bio-feature that highlighted her accomplishments in track and life and recounted the amazing real life hurdles she had negotiated to make it to the Beijing Olympics was stirring and her performance up to the final made her imminent victory a foregone conclusion. When the starting gun sounded, it was evident that Lolo's reputation was well-founded. She blazed through the hurdles with lighting speed, well ahead of the entire field and all was on course for a gold medal performance and the adoration, fame and perks that are part and parcel to such an attainment when the unthinkable happened. Two hurdles away from "eternal" Olympic Glory, Lolo hit a hurdle! She didn't just clip it, she hit it with enough force to break her stride, her rhythm and her hopes of obtaining any medal at all, let alone the gold. Showing courage befitting a champion, Lolo granted an interview after the race, handling the loss with dignity and class. The pain, nevertheless, was plain for all to see and even more evident when, after the interview, she went to herself and could be seen weeping bitter tears.

Illustrious WWII General George Patton had a strong opinion about losing and those who lost. He believed that any endeavor worth pursuing was worth winning and said that he personally, "wouldn't give a hoot...for a man who lost and laughed." I understand the general's disdain for losing and laughing. Sometimes in our pursuit of good sportsmanship, we are inclined to act as if losing in the fierce pursuit of a victory is something that should be smiled about and shrugged off in a gesture to "put on a happy face" and to "grin and bear it" in our humiliation or disappointment. I am a stickler for good sportsmanship in athletic contests and in life and I certainly admire the brave faces and congratulatory graces shown by those who lose in the pursuit of excellence. Nevertheless, I empathize with the tears of someone who has given their all to a quest that in the end, in spite of intense preparation and realistic expectation, falls short.

How can an athlete who has in all probability spent the majority of their adolescent and adult life pursuing a fete that will likely define them and set up a future of amazing opportunity laugh when that pursuit falls flat and they are left with nothing but an obliterated dream and might have beens? To quote Jesse Owens, it means having one's "entire existence justified in just 10 seconds!" Losing is serious business, especially when one expects to win. When the loss is a surprise, introspection is always a part of the process. Invariably, the unexpected loser will ask,"Why did I lose?" "How could this happen?" and "What now?" The answers are usually complex - a convergence of the improbable, the unfortunate, or the unbelievable that result in a "perfect storm" of dream destruction that send one's expectations "to the bottom" with no hope of restoration.

Perspective is also part of the process. Sometimes, the pain of loss is all on the loser and cannot be shared or understood by others. One competitor is just happy to get to the Olympics and takes pride in the fact that only a literal handful of humans can move faster, soar higher, or be stronger than they, while another is disappointed that their victories were merely silver or bronze and not gold. Consider this. Would Michael Phelps have been a "loser" if he had "only" won say, 7Golds at Beijing and "simply" tied Mark Spitz's 1972 Olympic record? It would have amounted to more cumulative golds than anyone in the history of the games, but many would have seen such an effort as a "failure" (Remember, Phelps "only" won six golds in Athens and "merely" qualified for the 2000 Barcelona Olympics - at the age of 15)! Nevertheless, when the bar is set high - so high that even one's failure outshines the "successes" of others - it is still viewed as a failure - one from which many never emotionally recover.

Most people eventually have to deal with personal setbacks which can eclipse even the greatest accomplishments and victories. For Lolo Jones, getting to the Olympics doesn't seem like enough. The Gold was lost and the memory of Beijing will possibly forver be a disappointment. "Real life" is even less forgiving. "Lucky" Charles Lindbergh became a legend and captured the world's imagination with his first solo flight across the Atlantic, but had to endure the agony of having his son kidnapped and never seeing him returned. How did he view his "luck" in light of his devastating loss, created by the very success that made him a household name? The trials of real life that visit everyone from the high and mighty to the weak and lowly and can distort the meaning of success and failure, winning and losing.

How can we cope when we lose something so precious that everything else in our life seems to be defined by it? The Bible offers encouragement and hope for even the deepest losses. The Scriptures warn against placing our intrinsic value in things that are unpredictable, uncertain and transient. This would include titles, wealth, accomplishments and the glory of fame. Jesus said,
Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

When we pursue the truly precious treasure of the Kingdom of God and the riches that come from that pursuit - riches of character, peace of mind, inner strength and deep and abiding faith - Jesus promises that we will not be disappointed. The great news is, though we are told to run this race to win, our winning is based not on the performance of others, or even our perfection but rather our winning is based on our faithfulness to the "course" upon which we have been placed. The book of Hebrews puts it like this,
let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

I hope that Lolo Jones has this hope and that she will view her heartbreaking loss in light of an epic race of much more importance than the amazing glory of an Olympic Race - the race of life where the course has lanes we all must negotiate, complete with obstacles, traps and challenges. God promises help even during the most difficult parts of the race. The prophet Isaiah has powerful encouragement for us, even when we hit the hurdles of our course.
Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary they will walk and not be faint.

This a race that we can definitely win if we focus on Jesus. It is also a race for which we will be rewarded - not with the perishing beauty of a gold medal performance that may not even be remembered after a generation or two, but with truly eternal significance that blesses others and earns the highest prize of recognition - The "Well Done" of our Heavenly Father! This is a race worth running, and a race that we can truly not afford to lose. Don't give up, keep your eyes on the prize! Until next time...


No comments: