Many years ago when my son was playing at the highest level of club soccer, he helped his team win a very prestigious national soccer tournament it had lost the previous year.
As we drove out of the parking lot after a victory in the championship match I asked him, “Is the joy of winning as intense as the pain of losing?”
He quickly responded, “No. Losing in a championship game stays with you forever.”
Of course, though he overstated the case, he did make an excellent point. Winning fills the heart with exuberance for sure, but the searing pain of losing – of living with “what might have been” – seems always to find a more permanent and intrusive place in our minds.
And that’s why thoughtful parents teach their children to be “good losers.” Dealing graciously and maturely with defeat, and its subsequent disappointment and anger, becomes one of the primary marks of great character.
On the other hand, people who remain bitter, angry and marked by vitriolic reaction are seen as peevish children.
In the world of athletics we see both sides. Most often we hear those on the losing side of a contest give respect to the winners and take the blame for their own poor performance.
That’s what mature people understand as the “high road.”
We also occasionally see losing players and coaches resort to blame-shifting, usually shooting hateful arrows at the officiating, their own teammates, and even the fans.
In the end we all understand the proper way to lose is to own the fact: Our side didn’t do enough right things to win, and the other side did.
And though it is monumentally difficult to swallow losing, it is even more despicable to continue regurgitating the bile of anger and animosity.
Sadly, the inability to lose graciously is increasingly found in other areas of our society. When that other guy glides into the parking space at the mall milliseconds ahead of us, or the other check-out line at the grocery moves much faster than ours, we Americans are much more prone to grouse and gripe than admit we were second best.
After all, it is popular to say second place is really first loser, and we hate to lose … at anything.
I’ll be the first to say I hate to lose. Perhaps that’s because I’m in love with competition, and to really compete you have to hate losing.
But hating to lose can never mean refusing to accept losing graciously.
Civility on the athletic field, and in society at large, is built on an ethical foundation of common courtesy, respect for the opposition and self-control, no matter the situation.
When a nation allows, and even champions, inappropriate action by those on the losing side, it is only a matter of time before we end up losing all courtesy and respect in our public discourse.
Oh, wait a minute. We’re already sliding down that slippery slope. Finger-pointing, blame-shifting, and a very real addiction to slinging outrageous insults apparently have become the new normal. And we put up with it because it makes for entertaining television.
Over the course of my own athletic career in school, I am sure we won more than we lost. And, in my son’s case, winning a couple of national championships capped a career that had him winning significantly more than losing.
Yet I can safely say the lessons learned in losing efforts have honed his character every bit as much as did the hard work and discipline he pursued to succeed. He learned how to win the character battle even if the score didn’t go his way.
Losing is never easy on the heart. But demonstrating strong, ethical character by exhibiting a gracious and courteous response to the winners of the contest is a great win in itself.
Frankly, our society is deeply engaged in a slide away from civility, honesty, and the foundational character qualities that have made us great.
We’re a great nation because we’ve displayed great character. Now, that seems up for grabs.
Let’s make sure we compete strongly on the side of respect. This is one contest we can’t afford to lose.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. “Ethically Speaking” runs Saturdays in The Signal.