On noble defeat

One of the hardest things in life is to accept defeat. Defeat never feels good in the short term. It reminds us that we are not invincible; that our will is far from that of God, the universe, or whatever we believe in, and that some day everything we have built up in life will cease to exist (or WE will cease to exist first). Defeat is a glimpse into mortality. It’s seeing death through a looking glass.

Nonetheless, defeat is imperative for growth. One hardly grows through success. Success, to many, is seen as the natural result of hard work or inherent qualities like charisma, intelligence, or creativity. An individual rarely reflects long and hard on why or how he or she managed to succeed. Success is a given for those who succeed. Success is like a wave: ride it while you can and don’t look back.

Defeat is like a whirlpool. There is no potential to move forward while in its midst. As you fight to get out, the ultimate fear is that you will sink ever deeper. In fact, the harder you fight against it, the deeper you sink.

Once an individual fails once, he or she cannot help but imagine future failures. A passing nightmare becomes a daily, haunting reality. Previous successes may, in fact, be reinterpreted as failures. An individual may even come to regret he or she was ever born. However, the real failure is not in the experience of setbacks and obstacles that come with the territory of an imperfect world — the real failure is the failure to learn from them.

The Dalai Lama once said, “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” Perhaps the most important lesson is discovering your mortality and your real-world limitations (beyond your egotistical fantasies). A remarkable literary lesson in defeat comes from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. In this tale a poor, old fisherman from Cuba embarks on a desperate foray into the Caribbean to break his considerable losing streak of 84 days without catching a fish. Once he catches a formidable marlin, he abandons all considerations of safety and allows himself to be towed by it into ever deeper waters. His grit eventually triumphs over the marlin’s size and strength, but he is far worse off after having caught the fish. Not only is he rendered guilty after having slain such a magnificent animal, he fails to return its valuable carcass to shore due to the many merciless sharks that are drawn by its blood.

His battles with the sharks, coupled with his dwindling supplies, almost cost him his life. Despite his valiant effort to preserve his prize (he breaks off the boat’s tiller and uses it as a weapon at one point), he coasts back to land with little more than the marlin’s bill in tow. Given the old man’s bravado and vitality, the reader is expecting passionate displays of anger or disappointment. The marlin was the man’s livelihood, after all.

Instead, the old man simply states that he went too far out into the sea. In other words, he tested nature (and fought nobly) — but nature ultimately won. He went beyond his limitations as a mortal man. Perhaps his suffering 84 days without catching a fish was just nature’s way of telling him to take it easy.

After having suffered my share of setbacks, I like to think that defeat is an imaginary line pulling you back when you have gone too far in the wrong direction. Challenging life’s limitations, while brave and noble at times, can have dire — and even fatal — consequences. It is critical to recognize defeat for what it is and to learn from it in order to live to succeed another day.

One thought on “On noble defeat

  1. Pingback: Tragic Hero | Writing on the Wall

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