Yesterday I was in Los Angeles to make a presentation, and so we stayed overnight in the city. Just a few blocks from our hotel a host of glittering celebrities were hovering around, walking the "red carpet" and hoping to be one of the lucky recipients of a coveted "Oscar."
While there were many excited winners last night, most of those people who walked that red carpet ended the evening disappointed and empty-handed. So the question I ask is what happens when you don't win--not just on an Oscar night, but in life? What happens when you don't win in life?
We are a very competitive society (at least this is true in Western culture) and the goal of competition is always to win. And so we think of losing or failing as somehow being shameful, disheartening and disappointing.
We also live in a society in which "perfection" is highly prized. Every day we are bombarded with images advertising beautiful people with perfect looks- perfect hair, perfect teeth and bodies selling perfect products. As I see it, everyday people in everyday ordinary life aspire to be those perfect people - always looking for this same kind of perfection in themselves and in others- perfect spouses, perfect friends, perfect children.
The problem is, of course, that "perfection" is a myth. The truth is that failure, making mistakes and losing is more the norm than winning. When we live into this myth of perfection, we inevitably set ourselves up for disappointment.
We often don't win in life; and when this inevitably happens, people either wallow in disappointment or at times they simply refuse to acknowledge their failure.
As a priest I served several parishes with elementary schools. I remember one particular school going through a great deal of angst about giving awards to kids - awards for excellence in academics or sports, awards for public speaking. Many argued that singling out only a few students by giving such awards made those who didn't win feel bad. It made them feel like a failure (and failure is a bad thing).
The school decided that instead of eliminating awards, that throughout the school year every single child in the school would receive some type of award, honor or certificate of accomplishment as often as possible. Of course this became somewhat ludicrous with awards going to the student who smiled the most that month, and essentially the awards became meaningless - no one losing and no one ever being recognized for success.
I personally believe that losing is a gift, and failure provides us with an opportunity for wisdom.
People often say that when we make mistakes, we should learn from them so we can do better next time. I think that may be true; but I also believe that when we make mistakes and when we come face to face with our imperfections, we are given an opportunity to recognize something about what it means to be a human being.
Human beings aren't perfect, we are all flawed and we all fail. Rather than feeling disgraced by our human weakness, I think we should embrace failure and recognize imperfection as being part of who we are.
One last thing comes to mind. When I lose and someone else wins, I also have a holy opportunity to practice that wonderful spiritual discipline referred to by Buddhists as "Unselfish Joy"- delighting in the success of others. Rather than feeling disgraced by my own loss or envious over your success, I can truly take delight in your good fortune. When I lose, I am given a "sacred moment" in which to shrink my own bloated ego and extend myself in relationship with you, so that your joy becomes my joy.
So what happens when you don't win? You become more human. You are invited to walk a pathway to deeper peace.