I don’t think I’ve ever lost gracefully. In fact, I’m not sure I know what that even means. If I want grace, if I want to feel right and blessed and good when the final buzzer sounds, then I have to win. But still, I like to think that I’m not that competitive.
All my trophies as a kid were participation trophies – the kind you get just for showing up, no- even just for having your name on the roster. 5th grade basketball. 1st grade pine wood derby. I had plenty of opportunities to learn how to lose gracefully, just on account of how many times I was ‘able’ to lose…but with every new trophy came the reminder of the importance of winning, the winning that remained elusive for many years.
About two months ago, I attended a weeklong orientation for pastoral ministers working among Native American peoples in the middle of South Dakota –nearly the middle of nowhere. The closest toothbrush to purchase was an hour’s drive away. When each day’s work – consisting of speakers, reflections and dialogues – ended, we found entertainment the old-fashioned way: walks, conversations, watching the weather, and board games.
Now, we were a pretty gentle crowd- a few Jesuits, a few diocesan priests, a few religious sisters, and a couple that was beginning pastoral ministry in Montana. All signs pointed toward general good nature and collective good will. That is, until the board game arrived, Settlers of Catan, where we became new and cutthroat discoverers of a small, cardboard island rich in cardboard resources, racing to settle its cardboard spaces with wooden villages, cities and roads. This game is won and lost by robbery, army domination, and by countless shady and exploitative resource trades. If you you shun these strategies, you lose but for incredible luck.
Things escalated quickly. These mild-mannered pastors, diligently taking notes and gently posing difficult questions by day, donned villainous alter-egos by night. On the island of Catan, Drs. Jekyll became Mr. and Mrs. Hydes, marking fewer 4-point turns than four-letter words, under breath and even bold-faced, sometimes in French or Spanish to try to soften the blow. Deceptions. Sneak alliances. Grudges… It was mostly me. I won some and lost some, but each win and loss was equally graceless, the games ugly enough that even if I won, I felt empty and even ashamed of the way I acted to get me there.
Winning is important to me, even though I don’t do many competitive sports anymore: I’ve somehow (*wink*) ended up mostly doing outdoorsy community-based, non-competitive stuff – the hiking, running, camping and climbing sorts of the sports world. If I’m honest with myself, though, I’ve chosen these things to avoid the werewolf in me, the beast awakened by every competitive full moon.
Unfortunately, the flip side to this is that, surprise, my competitive spirit wasn’t squelched, but simply shifted. Now I just compete in everything else. Ever since I got my name on a plaque in eighth-grade and then, again, in high school, I finally found where I could compete. So I’ve been trying to win ‘em all in those categories ever since – academic awards, service awards, intellectual indie board games, you name it.
“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” they say. But that just sounds like another participation trophy to me. It sounds like winning a pity prize simply for showing up, for surviving.
All this is as exhausting as it is egocentric. I want out, but I’m hooked. I cannot be ‘my best’ until I am ‘the best’. I cannot be good without being perfect, because perfect is often what it takes to win. And with every transition in life comes the same opportunity, the same temptation to win… As I enter into a role of campus ministry and teaching at one of our Jesuit high schools, I’m not asking what it will take to be a ‘good’ campus minister or a ‘good’ first-year teacher, but right away, I’m asking how to be remembered as ‘the best’ campus minister or first-year teacher in recent memory.
I am tired.
However… there’s a new invitation on the table, one that I think comes from good prayer and a good God: it’s an invitation to lose gracefully, to lose reflectively, to lose in such a way that I can smile, learn and be better for the kids the next time around. It’s an invitation to feel like I’m enough, for once.
First-year teaching, here I come. I hereby dub this year, “The Year of Losing Gracefully.” Oh Lord, be easy on me.