Good winners and Good losers

Posted on November 14, 2020

Our four-year-old son Benny does not like losing. It doesn’t matter what the game is or who the competition is, for him a defeat is often followed by stomping his feet, wailing loudly about the unfairness of it all, and then running away. Recently, he and Gabby have been playing a game on our swingset, racing to get the top – the problem is that she is 3 years older and significantly faster on the monkey bars than he is running up the slide – as a result he often comes in second, which in a two-person race is not where he wants to be. Sometimes Gabby will let him win, sometimes I intervene and block her progress, but most of the time he has to face his defeat. For me as a parent, while I would rather he didn’t throw a tantrum because he lost, I do recognize that there is an important teaching moment in these occurrences – helping him accept his loss. It is a fact of life that Benny will have to face defeat at various points in his life, some will be even more serious than losing to your sister when racing to the top of a climbing structure. The important thing is about how to deal with defeat and setbacks.

There are so many important lessons to be taught about how we respond to victory and defeat. Alongside helping Benny to lose with dignity, there is also the lesson for Gabby about how to be a good winner. She has learned not to taunt him after her victory, not to excessively revel in the moment and that her enjoyment is internal rather than at his expense.

At the end of a football game, one of the things I love seeing, or at least did when it was permissible, was the way that the rival coaches would run to the center and embrace one another. You would often watch as the victorious coach whispered something into his rival’s ear. I doubt they were gloating; I am certain that they were offering praise and encouragement after a good game. There may have been feelings of euphoria on one side and despair on the other, but together they offered a compelling example for the sportspeople they direct about how to behave and respond.

As our election drags on there has been a lot written about how to be a good winner and how to be a good loser. In many ways part of the problem is the zero-sum game of any contest – one side is victorious, the other is defeated. But all of us have a choice about how we to respond to the circumstances we find ourselves facing.

Having followed the political coverage since that Tuesday evening, I have been so struck by the story of Stacey Abrams, with the way that she lost and then the way, subject to a recount, that she helped her party win the state. In 2018 she lost the election to become Georgia’s governor. The victor won by just 55,000 votes in an election that was beset by allegations of voter suppression.[1] She could have responded by complaining about the unfairness of the electoral process, she could have cried foul and refused to accept the people’s verdict, or she could have simply faded away into the background. Abrams did not choose any of those responses; instead she got to work. She formed an organization to register and empower voters, she wrote a book about voter suppression, and she co-produced an Amazon Prime documentary on the same subject.[2] And now she is being credited with flipping Georgia.

I am not sharing Stacey Abrams’ story from a political perspective; instead, I think she is an important teacher about how we deal with defeat and how to be, not just a good loser, but one who turns defeat into victory. Nelson Mandela, a man who spent countless years imprisoned in Apartheid South Africa, who suffered many defeats during his life, once said: “I never lose. I either win or learn.” It is clear that Ms. Abrams followed this line of thinking to learn rather than just lose. That’s the lesson I want to teach Benny, to not wallow in defeat, to not throw a tantrum, but to see each loss as an opportunity to learn and grow, to come back stronger and more prepared, to ultimately triumph.

When we go back to the Bible, and we read the story of Joseph, for me he is such a perfect example of learning from his defeats so that he might ultimately succeed. As a refresher, Joseph is the favored son of Jacob and as such he is spoilt by his father and through his lack of humility he is also hated by his brothers. He tattles on his brothers and shares dreams that appear to predict his future success and superiority over them. It is somewhat unsurprising that they eventually sell him into slavery and lie to their father, Jacob, claiming he was killed. Defeat one comes at the hands of his brothers and defeat two comes as a servant in Potiphar’s house, when he is ultimately sent to Pharaoh’s jail. But through these experiences he grows and develops, he learns how to behave and with due deference and humility he ultimately becomes the ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. His success was far from inevitable, but came about as a result of learning from his failures. It is also worth noting that the once arrogant boy does not take credit for his success, but instead attributes it all to God.

Last weekend, as Joe Scarborough on MSNBC was berating the networks for not calling the election, he decided to have some fun claiming, “breaking news,” before announcing election results from over forty years ago. When he announced that Ford had defeated Reagan in the 1976 Republican primary, I was shocked – I could not imagine that President Reagan had ever been defeated, least of all in a Republican primary. Despite my extensive study for my citizenship interview, it is clear that it did not cover every single political primary and contest. When I read up on the contest, I was struck by the speech he delivered following his defeat; he stepped forward and united the party to support the man who had just defeated him. He lost with honor and he learned.

Reagan’s campaign manager, John Sears, suggested that one of the reasons he lost the primary was because he had announced his running mate, Senator Richard Schweiker, in advance of receiving the party’s nomination.[3] He learned the lesson of this primary defeat, and in 1980 Reagan waited until he won the nomination. And then he showed he wasn’t just a good loser, but he was also a good winner, because he chose the man he had just beaten, George Bush, to serve as his running mate. He did not gloat, but instead he set aside his differences, reconciled with his opponent, and they embarked on eight years of partnership.

As a Jewish community we have suffered many setbacks, many defeats, and many disappointments throughout our history. But we have never wallowed, we have always learned from these experiences, always found ways to come back stronger, and worked hard to avoid repeating the same mistakes again. When the Second Temple was destroyed we might have imagined that Judaism would cease to exist, but we learned from that experience and established the synagogue, so that we were no longer reliant on a single center for worship. Almost 2,000 years later the synagogue continues to serve us well and has ensured our survival through countless generations – we didn’t lose, we learned.

We cannot guarantee that we or our children will never suffer defeat– that is beyond our capacity. But we can ensure that we give them the tools to lose with grace and dignity, to lose in a way that ensures lessons are learned, and through their losses to be inspired to work harder for what they believe in and to redouble their efforts so that victory might follow.

Many of the people that we consider to be the most successful in business, in politics, and in sports had to overcome adversity, they had to navigate defeat, and they had to lose so that ultimately they would win. Stacy Abrams and Ronald Reagan lost with dignity and grace, and they learned from those experiences so that they could ultimately triumph. That is a powerful lesson about how to be a good loser and ultimately a great winner. Shabbat Shalom.

[2] Ibid.