On Learning How to Lose

It occurred to me recently how hard it is for people to lose, to give up, let go, or just admit that maybe they had it wrong. Why do we fight tooth and nail to get our own way? While this may not seem all that new, the part of this that really had an edge for me was when I realized that the people who seem to have the hardest time with losing are those who identify as Christians!

But surely this is all wrong!

People of faith, certainly within the Christian tradition, should be great examples of how to lose well. Shouldn’t we be known for people who don’t throw tantrums when we don’t get our own way, rather than being willing to – in some cases quite literally – go to all-out war over something? In Christian theology there is a larger perspective than one’s own – so if I consider myself a Christian I become a part of something much bigger. I learn that I can let go because I trust that there are greater forces at work in the world. Everything really is not all up to me. There may be other needs, perspectives, or desires at work.

But beyond this, losing is built into the Christian narrative.

Built into the most core framework of the Christian story is loss. My friend Peggy says that we’re way to quick to jump to
resurrection Sunday. We need to linger on the power of Good Friday. We need more churches and meetings that take seriously the narrative power of realizing that before renewal can take place loss is necessary and that we – Christians – adhere to a story that gives us no other way through.

I do not mean here that we should be dismissive of it of the challenges around loss or losing or not getting things to turn out the way we want. Instead, we have a tradition and story that helps us incorporate even these aspects into our life’s journey and faith formation, not as some appendix but as an essential piece of our own personal growth.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin put it this way,

And yet everything is also fragmented and fighting this very process of reunification. For Christians, this resistance is symbolized by the cross. There is a cruciform shape to reality, it seems. Loss precedes all renewal; emptiness makes way for every new infilling; every transformation in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous “form.” This is the big fly in the cosmic ointment!

-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin


So what does it mean to embrace loss as part of the process of renewal? How can people who identify with the Christian story learn how to be good at losing, not as some sick desire for unnecessary pain but out of a sense of trust and faith in the larger story?

The flip side is to adopt what we might call “Empire thinking.” Empire thinking is a thinking that seeks to win at all costs. Wins in ways that constantly create new victims. Wins in ways that destroy relationships, the earth, and human bodies. Empire thinking replaces God with itself, thus believe that it’s viewpoint, it’s politics and theology, is the One True Way.

We are trained to win. At all costs. Especially white males in our culture. Not only are we taught to win at all costs, but people around us expect us to win or at least try to win, and so people learn how to interact with us under those terms, keeping themselves often from having what they need.

Because we grow up surrounded by Empire thinking.

I was reminded of this again recently listening to the Reply All episode called “Negative Mount Pleasant” about the new Foxconn plant going into Mount Pleasant Wisconsin and the willingness to decimate one’s own community, land, and relationships in the name of winning the big deal.

This makes me think of playing nerf guns with my son – I know, a great Quaker game. I can totally obliterate my son who is 6. Really teach him that what matters most is to win. And I’m not going to lie, not only am I sometimes tempted to just blow him out of the water, but it feels good to win, even if it is just a little kid. This is terrible to say, but there is truth in it. This is empire way of thinking. No matter what. Even when someone’s spirit gets crush in the process.

But there is another way to play with a child. It is not about winning but learning how to play. So I could make it look like I am trying really hard to win, but I scale back my skills, my power, I am more gentle, I exaggerate my movements. I lose on purpose and I lose in the right way. I play in a way that teaches and supports. Doing it this way actually helps be too. I can work to break my own addiction to winning, but I can also help him to break that addiction (or not form it). He could grow up learning that it is equally okay to lose. The religion of Empire, which is addicted to winning and perpetuating itself, leaves a trail of victims. It is very tempting and easy for Christians to adopt this way of “playing” with others.

James Alison, in his book “The Joy of Being Wrong,” says that Jesus and Good Friday revealed to teach us how to lose in just the right ways, which gives us a meaningful vision of living that doesn’t create victims, and empties us of the violence that keeps us from forming the kind of community and world we dream of.

Queries for Reflection:

  • How can we practice a spirituality of loss?
  • Can we learn how to lose gracefully?
  • Can this be taught as a form of spiritual practice?
  • How do we work with those in our communities who are not able to “be wrong?”

Published by Wess

Teacher, author, Quaker, ​and public theologian. He works at Guilford College, enjoys riding his Triumph Bonneville, and listening to music.

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