Our societies have advanced tendencies to label certain people ‘winners’ and others – logically enough – ‘losers’. Aside from the evident meanness of this categorisation, the underlying problem with it is the suggestion that life might be a unitary, singular race, at the conclusion to which one could neatly rank all the competitors from highest to lowest.
And yet the more confusing and complex truth is that life is really made up of a number of races that unfold simultaneously over very different terrain and with different sorts of cups and medals in view. There are races for money, fame and prestige of course – and these attract many spectators and in some social circles, the bulk of the coverage. But there are also races that measure other kinds of prowess worth venerating. There is a race for who can remain calmest in the face of frustration. There is a race for who can be kindest to children. There is a race measuring how gifted someone is at friendship. There are races focused on how attentive someone is to the evening sky or how good they are at deriving pleasure from autumn fruits.
Despite our enthusiasm for sorting out competitors into neat ranks, a striking fact about the multi-race event of life is, quite simply, that no one is ever able to end up a winner in every genre of competition available. Furthermore, prowess in one kind of race seems to militate against one’s chances of success in others. Winning at being ruthlessly successful in business seems not – for example – generally to go hand in hand with any real ability at the race to appreciate the sky or find pleasure in figs. Those who are terrific at gaining fame tend to be hampered when it comes to competing in the race that measures the ability to be patient around thoughtful but underconfident three year old children.
We cannot – it seems – be winners at everything. Those who appear to be carrying off all the prizes and are lauded in certain quarters as superhuman athletes of life cannot, on closer examination, really be triumphing across the board in any such way. They are bound to be making a deep mess of some of the less familiar or prestigious races they are entered for; in certain corners of the stadium, they’ll be falling over, tripping up, complaining loudly about track conditions and, perhaps, sourly denigrating the whole event as useless and not worth participating in.
If one cannot be a winner at everything, it follows that one cannot be a loser at everything either. When we have failed in certain races in the mille-athlon of life, we retain ample opportunities to train and develop our strength to win in others. We may never again be able to compete in the race for fame, honour or money, but it’s still entirely open to us to compete in the race for kindness, friendship and forgiveness. We may even win at the not insignificant race for enjoying one’s own company or sleeping very soundly and without anxiety for many hours in the sun.
There is no such thing as a winner or a loser per se. There is only a person who has won in some areas and messed up in others. And, to go deeper, someone whose talent at winning in one sort of race means they must naturally and almost inevitably mess up in alternatives – and vice versa.
We never starkly fail at life itself. When we mess up in worldly areas and feel dejected and isolated, the universe is just giving us an exceptional chance to begin the training which means we will one day become star athletes in other less well-known but hugely important races – races around keeping a sense of humour, showing gratitude, forgiving, appreciating, letting go – and making do. These are the noble tracks where those who have ‘failed’ can finally, properly and redemptively learn to ‘win.’