by Jennifer Paros
“We lost because we told ourselves we lost.”
-- Leo Nicholaevich Tolstoy
The other night, my husband, my youngest son, and I all sat down to play a game of SORRY. It took a little convincing, though, as my son - due to a recent losing streak – had banned most board games. Warily, he agreed to play.
If you’re familiar with SORRY you know that the object is for each player to get all his pieces safely Home. There’s also Safety Zones where one is no longer vulnerable to the schemes and brutality of the other players. Eventually, all of us were in our Safety Zones, drawing card after card (no dice in Sorry) to see who would win.
My son was in near agony with anticipation. And then, when the fateful card was drawn and my husband claimed victory, my youngest bellowed over the unfairness, stormed off, and slammed his bedroom door.
For a long time now, he has equated losing at games with being a loser and so, for him, it wasn’t a matter of who got to move a little plastic piece to the space marked Home first, it was a matter of his value being on the line. He has yet to embrace himself separate and stable from the things he does and their outcomes. Not, actually, in truth, so unlike me.
I’ve never thought of myself as particularly desperate, or fearing failure until recently when I found myself feeling I’d lost a game I wanted to win.
The other day I received news from my publisher that they were selling off the overstock of my book due to decreased sales. I found myself overwhelmed with sorrow. I had “failed”. I had not done what I was supposed to do to make the book a success. I wasn’t who I wanted to be; I was the opposite. A sense of ineffectualness and having done it wrong took over. Like my son, I turned the idea of losing into an identity with which I was to suffer.
On reflection, I see that throughout my experience working on the book and having it published, I was always unconsciously and/or consciously striving to avoid losing. I wanted to win while all my attention stayed invested in my fear of losing.
Despite this conflict, many lovely experiences were had – many successes or “wins” along the way. Yet I was stressed because, on some level, I was hoping to disprove my fears about myself through external achievement (i.e. selling lots of books) – just as my son was hoping to disprove his painful thoughts about himself by winning at a board game. And there’s no winning that way; the only way to be released from the hold of a thought is to release one’s belief in it.
“If a victory is told in detail, one can no longer distinguish it from a defeat.”
-- Jean-Paul Sartre
Every victory is made of a fabric woven of successes and failures. That’s why so many established writers have stories to tell of rejection and bad reviews. Even within the game of Sorry, there were times when each of us was losing, times when each was winning. So to invest in a pattern of trying to avoid losing means, in certain terms, holding oneself back from winning as well.
Victory is defined as defeat of or success in a struggle over something – an opponent, an obstacle - but victory can also be seen as a metaphor for us returning to the intrinsic triumph of life and creative action. There is victory inherent in life, inherent in the paradigm of us not as winners or losers but as creators. If we keep ourselves identified with the outcomes of win and lose, it becomes hard to remember ourselves as creators – the only foundation for an identity that offers a true sense of security in the world.
In the end, my son was right: it was “unfair” – but not the outcome of the game - it was unfair that he diminish himself with the thought of loss. There was never any reason for it, need for it, or truth to it. Winning and losing are terms that belong to a concept of life, not to life itself. There is no greater victory than to purposefully step back into the truth of life after having been lost in a mental game, in which our value must be proven, and reclaim that value as intrinsic. This is the only true win.