Monumental losses – unexpected losses – unrecoverable losses - have a way of zapping one’s very soul and leaving one not only in a daze but in a heap of pain, regret and inner anguish. The thoughts are relentless – “If only I would have…” “But I should have and could have!” “Why didn’t I?...” Yet, in both of these cases, the men who went down in defeat have displayed character and courage that gives us hints for how they will navigate the future. Many contemporary athletes throw pity parties, hurl obscenities, and unleash unrestrained tirades after a loss of much less consequence than the losses for Pac-Man and Army this weekend. These “losers” refuse to talk to reporters – refuse to honor the victors – refuse to respect and to honor the game they claim to love. Steelman and Pacquiao, however, faced the world and the post-loss scrutiny just as they had faced their opponents – with courage, honor and dignity – characteristics that can be very difficult to display in the face of a very public and humiliating defeat. This is what athletics should, in the end, be about; the opportunity to grow in character and honor, whether in defeat or victory; understanding the value of the prize sought, while also understanding the greater and incalculable value of the human soul.
As one who made my own deeply painful fumble in my contest with the Dean of the United States Military Academy and shed tears that were not recorded for posterity as were Trent Stillman’s nor did my face bear the scars of Manny Pacquiao, I understand profound loss. I faced both comfort and support as well as ridicule and chastisement during my experience and learned from both of these responses to my disappointing performance. I have put my academic loss into perspective since having ministered to countless others, helping them to deal with life and death situations, and the kinds of heartaches and heartbreaks that defy easy answers and instant healing. I have also faced my own life and death encounters and losses as well. Those real tragedies place my perceived loss in the proper context of “mistakes made and lessons learned”. I have also seen how God has mercifully used my humiliation to move me towards a humility and a restoration that have served me as no victory I have experienced ever could have. Because of God’s work in me, I can see how He can truly work all things together for good for those who love Him and understand that He has a purpose for them too.
It is that perspective that helps me understand the context of Jeremiah 29:11, where God declares That He has plans for a hopeful future for the nation of Judah after they experience a “knockout” of life shattering proportions – losing a war and being sent into exile. Sometimes it takes a devastating loss to grab our attention and to shape us to do the work God truly has prepared for us to do. Sometimes someone or some circumstance has to literally take us down a few pegs so that we can see life as it God would have us to live it, not as a selfish fantasy of our own creation.
Though they have suffered great losses, I have nothing but respect for Trent Steelman and Manny Pacquiao. I can see great continued hope for their future if they use their experiences of loss to form their souls and not allow them to break their spirits. If these great competitors can gain wisdom and perspective in their daily lives, then the losses can also serve as refining tools that will build character in them and benefit all the people they will encounter in the future. These are experiences from which we can all learn – even as observers. But maybe this lesson hits closer to home...