Thursday, October 29, 2015


     When he ran for president as the Libertarian Party candidate, attorney David Bergland was frequently faced with a question third-party candidates know all too well: “You know you can’t win, so why are you doing this?”

     Bergland had a thoughtful answer to that question. I’ll defer presenting it to you until the completion of this piece.

     Today, we have a pithy and important essay from Dystopic:

     On the matter of trophies, my father earned a number of them in High School for various things. He was a very talented athlete and won a number of track and field events. Those old trophies were kept in this dilapidated old bag, and every year he would look at them and ponder whether he should just chuck them in the garbage for being a waste of space. Each time, I would convince him to keep them, because I was proud that my father had been a talented athlete.

     But I guess what was really eating me was that I had squandered my own athletic talents. His trophies were proof to me, since I had the same genes, that I could do it if I really wanted to. My meager participation trophies were enough, I thought. But they really weren’t, and so each year I would try to convince my father to keep his trophies around. It puzzled me back then that they didn’t mean anything to him.

     Finally, one year he overrode my objections, and into the garbage they went. I asked him why he would throw them away, and in typical fashion (for my father is not a man of many words), he explained that the trophies didn’t matter. What matters is that he knew he won, and he could carry that knowledge without the corresponding waste of garage space.

     It took a long time for me to understand his wisdom.

     And wisdom there was in plenty, though it escapes many all their lives long. When winner is defined as “he who has triumphed over all his competitors,” it becomes exclusive, a property that can belong to only one contestant. The obsession with winning in that sense reduces many of us to bitterness.

     But we can assign more than one meaning to winner, without destroying the one above.

     In the movie Personal Best, aspiring Olympic competitors (and lovers) Chris Cahill (played by Mariel Hemingway) and Tory Skinner (played by Patrice Donnelly) must several times confront differences between them that eventually, albeit not unhappily, end their romance. One of those was their competition against one another in a couple of track and field events. Seriously meant competitions between lovers are seldom a good thing.

     A track event can have only one winner. There are medals for the second and third-place finishers, but they’re essentially consolation prizes; they concede the title of winner to the one who wears the gold.

     As the overture to the climactic heat, Skinner, who faces being eliminated from the squad by the presence of younger and faster runners, tells Cahill that the most important thing isn’t to win the gold; it’s to improve on one’s “personal best:” the standard set by one’s previous best performance. That outlook allows Skinner, who has already confronted her advancing age as an athlete, to reframe the heat into a competition with herself.

     In that sort of competition, there are no medals...but there are also no losers.

     While I share Dystopic’s contempt for “participation trophies,” I feel it’s equally important to supplement his closing haymaker of an observation:

     We are not all winners. And this might be the most important life lesson of all.

     ...with this alternate viewpoint: No, we are not all winners if the contest is against others. But to the extent that one has set a personal goal and has attained it despite obstacles, pain, fatigue, and self-doubt, he has won the contest with himself.

     That perspective is the one that makes it possible for millions of us, who can never be “winners” in the conventional sense, to keep going.

     In electing to run a “hopeless” campaign for the presidency in 1984, David Bergland set himself a goal: to popularize the philosophy of freedom well beyond the bounds it knew at that time. He pursued it vigorously, with a great many public appearances and written material. Given his achievements in that direction, he was able to define himself as a winner despite not having gained the Oval Office.

     Paul of Tarsus, knowing that his execution was at hand, consoled himself and his acolyte thus in his second epistle to Timothy:

     I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom;
     Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
     For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;
     And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.
     But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.
     For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.
     I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:
     Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.

     [Second Epistle to Timothy 4:1-8]

     In that stance there is victory imperishable.


Dystopic said...

The parable of the talents seems applicable here. The most important thing in life is not to waste that which you have been given. Don't bury it in the sand. You may not be the man with ten talents, in the end, but if you have done well with what you have, you will be that much richer in life and righteousness.

The "everybody is a winner" participation trophy culture is just burying your talent in the sand and patting yourself on the back saying "well, I could have done better, but why bother?" I am ashamed to say I once thought similarly.

There was a kid with cerebral palsy recently who ran the marathon. Winning, in the sense of beating others, didn't matter to him. Completing the event was what mattered to him. That, itself, was a tremendous victory for him. It was his personal best, as you say.

God may have given him but one single talent, but he doubled it, and then some. That is so much better than burying your head in the sand.

Weetabix said...

Striving for personal bests has helped my kids in track and in gymnastics. The first place trophies and medals were a bonus.

And Paul's epistle uncomfortably reminds me of the tumult around the most recent Synod.

Backwoods Engineer said...

In the action shooting sports, in which I am a competitor, shooters of all skill levels compete together, but different gun types, competitor classifications, and age handicaps create different categories of winners. The shooting sports are fairly unique in placing so much emphasis on the quest of exceeding one's "personal best".

On the range, at every skill level, "the most important thing isn’t to win the gold; it’s to improve on one’s 'personal best:' the standard set by one’s previous best performance." It's what I strive for in every practice session. And in my mind, that's a metaphor for the rest of life.

Tim Turner said...

I'm ashamed that I haven't done more with the blessed life, health and material bounty that I was given. But I tell you this:

1) "Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day:" I have NEVER liked Paul. He is an arrogant scold, as far as I'm concerned.

2) Yes, trying your best and constantly working to improve yourself is admirable. But as a culture, a nation, a civilization? I think "winning" is pretty darned important. Even as our culture seems to be downplaying and even demonizing winning in sports, business or competition in general, we also seem to be accepting the idea that all cultures, nations and ideals are equal and that none deserve any more respect or "blood, toil, tears and sweat" than another. I don't believe that.

I know I'm sort of off-topic again. Sorry! At least I didn't rant about CNBC's handling of last night's "debate." :)

Francis W. Porretto said...

Yes, Tim, Paul was a bit much. But the sentiment that he expressed in the previous verses is his argument for feeling that he has "stayed the course" that God assigned to him, and thus has earned his reward. While it's more confidence in meriting eternal bliss than a Christian should allow himself, the man was facing execution, so I'm inclined to "let him off with a warning."

Weetabix said...

Three things always made me uncomfortable with Paul:

1. Paul surely does seem to feel great affection for Paul.

2. At Mass, I often have to go back through the second reading to try to figure out just what he was talking about. His language is unclear to me, and he wanders around in parenthetical phrases so far that his sentence structure loses me as well.

3. Protestants seem to favor Paul over the Gospels, cherry picking from his writings to justify some of their more... er... interesting conclusions. It feels like financial derivatives to me - venturing off into unreal territory for personal profit, not realizing the risks involved.