Losing

I have mentioned before that I am a massive rugby fan, and I have also mentioned that I’m not that brilliant at it and have much experience of losing. I also support England, which has left me no choice other than to spend the past ten years alternating between moments of joy and long periods of frustration over what could have been, whilst continually living in the shadow of ‘that drop goal’ (apologies for non-rugby fans, for whom this will make little sense, but bear with me) and trying to come to terms with our latest loss (although… any New Zealanders reading this? ūüôā ). The team I support have spent the last few seasons living through a similar shadow of former success, and many losses have subsequently ensued. As such, I am very well acquainted with the practice of losing, and in particular the different kinds of loss that can occur (and the emotions inspired thereof). The following list will not be exhaustive, but I’ll aim to cover as many as I can.

The most obvious variety of loss has also perhaps the most potential to be depressing; the thrashing. An entirely one sided affair, where all concerned tried their best but simply weren’t good enough to even come close to standing up to the opposition, a thrashing can serve as a message saying “People might tell you to try your best, but your best isn’t good enough“. This is a terribly depressing thought, suggesting that all of one’s hard work, effort and training matter for nought in comparison to one’s opponents; or, the thrashing can be taken in a positive vein, a sense of “hey, they are just better than us, but we did well and there’s no shame in it”. Which way one goes really depends on the opposition concerned and one’s way of handling failure (refer to my back catalogue for more details) but a good example of the latter course occurred during the Rugby World Cup in 2007 when Portugal, never noted as a great rugby side, lost to the rugby powerhouse that is New Zealand by 108 points to 13. That was a definitive thrashing, but Portugal had nonetheless scored a try against the world’s best sides, hot favourites to win the overall competition (although they subsequently didn’t) and had played with pride and tenacity. The sight of their side, chests puffed out and eyes flush with emotion, singing the national anthem at the start of that game was a truly heartwarming one.

Subtly distinct from, but similar to, a thrashing is the collapse, the different being whose fault the scale of the loss is. A thrashing is very much won by the winners, but a collapse is caused by the losing party allowing everything that could go wrong to go wrong, performing terribly and letting the result tell the story. The victim of a collapse may be the underdog, may be expected to lose, but certainly should not have done so by quite so spectacular a margin as they do. This generally conjures up less depression than it does anger, frustration and even shame; you know you could and should have done better, but for whatever reason you haven’t. No excuses, no blaming the ref, you just failed- and you hate it.

Next in the order of frustration is the one-aspect loss, something generally confined to more multifaceted, and particularly team, occasions. These centre on one individual or aspect of the situation; one’s left back failing to mark his man on numerous occasions, for example, or a tennis player’s serve letting him down. Again the predominant feeling is one of frustration, this time of having done enough and still not won; in every other aspect of one’s performance you might have been good enough to win, but because of one tiny aspect you were let down and it was all for nought. The one-aspect loss is closely related to the ‘kitchen sink’ loss, such as Spain experienced at the hands of Switzerland at the football world cup two years ago. Spain were clearly the better side in that match, and but for one lucky goal from the Swiss they surely would have won it, but after that Switzerland holed up in their own penalty area and defended for their lives. Spain might have thrown everything they had and then some at the Swiss after that, might have struck shot after shot, but no matter what they did it just didn’t come up for them; luck and fate were just against them that day, and for all their effort they still managed to lose. A kitchen sink loss is also characterised by frustration, often made doubly annoying by the fact that the one aspect of one’s performance that has let you down has nothing to do with you, but can also summon depression by the seeming irrelevance of all the hard work you did put in. A match you should have won, could have won, often needed to have won, but no matter how much effort you put in fate just didn’t want you to win. Doesn’t life suck sometimes?

The even loss also records significant frustration levels, particularly due to the nature of the games it often occurs in. An even loss occurs between two closely matched teams or individuals in a close contest, and where portents at the start say it could go either way. Sadly, in most sports a draw is rare, whilst in many it is impossible, and in any case such a situation satisfies nobody; there must be a winner and, unfortunately, a loser. Such a loss is always hard to take, as one knows they are good enough to win (and usually have done so in the past; such occasions are often repeat fixtures against local rivals, meaning the prospect of a year’s gloating must also be considered) but that, on the day, it went the other way. On other occasions,¬†a sense of anticlimax may be present; sometimes losses just happen, and do not inspire any great emotion (although the near-neutral loss is a category unto itself), and after a tight game in which you played alright but were fair beaten there’s sometimes not too much to get emotional about.

And then, we come to perhaps the strangest form of losing- the happy loss. It’s often hard to be comfortable about being happy with a loss, particularly in a tight game decided only by the narrowest of margins and that one could have won. There are some people who will never feel happy about a loss, no matter how good the game or the opposition, constantly striving for the concrete success a victory can show; but for others, there is still comfort to be found in losing. There lies no shame in losing a match against a good, deserving opponent, no shame in losing when you could not possibly have given more, and no shame in doing far, far better than you were expected to. I have talked before on this blog on the value of learning to fail with grace; just as important, in life as in sport and such, is learning how to lose.

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The Seven Slightly Harmful Quite Bad Things

The Seven Deadly Sins are quite an odd thing amongst western culture; a list of traits ostensibly meant to represent the worst features of humanity, but that is instead regarded as something of a¬†humorous¬†diversion, and one, moreover, that a large section of the population have barely heard of. The sins of wrath (originally spelt ‘wroth’, and often represented simply as ‘anger’), greed (or ‘avarice’), sloth (laziness), pride, lust, envy and gluttony were originally not meant as definite sins at all. Rather, the Catholic Church, who came up with them, called them the seven Capital Vices (their original religious origin also leads to them being referred to as ‘cardinal sins’) and rather than representing mere sins in and of themselves they were representative of the human vices from which all sin was born. The Church’s view on sin is surprisingly complex- all sinful activity is classified either as venial (bad but relatively minor) or mortal (meant to destroy the inner goodness of a person and lead them down a path of eternal damnation). Presumably the distinction was intended to prevent all sinful behaviour from being labelled a straight ticket to hell, but this idea may have been lost in a few places over time, as might (unfortunately) be accepted. Thus, holding a Capital Vice did not mean that you were automatically a sinful person, but that you were more naturally predisposed to commit sin and should try to exorcise them from you. All sin falls under the jurisdiction (for want of better word) of one of the vices, hence the confusion, and each Deadly Sin had its own counterpart Heavenly Virtue; patience for wrath, charity for greed, diligence for sloth, humility for pride, chastity for lust (hence why catholic priests are meant to be chaste), kindness for envy and temperance for gluttony. To a Catholic, therefore, these fourteen vices and virtues are the only real and, from a moral perspective, meaningful traits a person can have, all others being merely offshoots of them. Pride is usually considered the most severe of the sins, in that one challenges your place in comparison to God, and is also considered the source of the other six; Eve’s original sin was not, therefore, the eating of the fruit from the forbidden tree, but the pride and self-importance that lead her to challenge the word of God.

There have been other additions, or suggestions of them, to this list over the years; acedia, a neglect of ones duty based on melancholy and depression, was seen as symptomatic of a refusal to enjoy god’s world, whilst vainglory (a kind of boastful vanity) was incorporated under pride in the 14th century. Some more recent scholars have suggested the addition of traits such as fear, superstition and cruelty, although the church would probably put the former two under pride, in that one is not trusting in God to save you, and the latter as pride in your position and exercising of power over another (as you can see, ‘pride’ can be made to cover a whole host of things). I would also argue that, whilst the internet is notoriously loath to accept anything the Christian church has ever done as being a remotely good idea, that there is a lot we can learn by examining the list. We all do bad things, that goes without saying, but that does not mean that we are incapable of trying to make ourselves into better people, and the first step along that road is a proper understanding of precisely where and how we are flawed as people. Think of some act of your behaviour, maybe something you feel as being good behaviour and another as a dubiously moral incident, and try to place its root cause under one of those fourteen traits. You may be surprised as to what you can find out about yourself.

However, I don’t want to spend the rest of this post on a moral lesson, for there is another angle I wish to consider with regard to the Seven Deadly Sins- that they need not be sins at all. Every one of the capital vices is present to some degree within us, and can be used as justification for a huge range of good behaviour. If we do not allow ourselves to be envious of our peers’ achievements, how can we ever become inspired to achieve such heights ourselves- or, to pick a perhaps more appropriate example, if we are not envious of the perfectness of the Holy Trinity, how can and why should we aspire to be like them? Without the occasional¬†espousal¬†of anger and wrath, we may find it impossible to convey the true emotion behind what we care about, to enable others to care also, and to ensure we can appropriately defend what we care for. How could the Church ever have attempted to retake the Holy Land without the wrath required to act and win decisively? Greed too acts as a driving force for our achievements (can the church’s devotion to its vast collection of holy relics not be labelled as such?), and the occasional bout of gluttony and sloth are often necessary to best aid our rest and recuperation, enabling us to continue to act as good, kind people with the emotional and physical strength to bear life’s burden. Lust is often necessary as a natural predisposition to love, surely a virtuous trait if ever there was one, whilst a world consisting solely of chaste, ‘proper’ people would clearly not last very long. And then there is pride, the deadliest and also the most virtuous of vices. Without a sense of pride, how can we ever have even a modicum of self-respect, how can we ever recognise what we have done well and attempt to emulate it, and how can we ever feel any emotion that makes us seem like normal human beings rather than cold, calculating, heartless machines?

Perhaps, then, the one true virtue that we should apply to all of this is that of temperance. We all do bad things and we may all have a spark of the seven deadly sins inside us, but that doesn’t mean necessarily that the incidences of the two need always to coincide. Sure, if we just embrace our vices and pander to them, the world will probably not end up a terribly healthy place, and I’m sure that my description of the deadly sins is probably stretching the point as to what they specifically meant in their original context. But, not every dubiously right thing you do is entirely terrible, and a little leeway here and there can go an awfully long way to making sure we don’t end up going collectively mental.

Well, last week’s solution didn’t work…

As I did last weekend, I am feeling like a sad, depressed, lonely bugger for no identifiable reason. Last week this lead to the disjointed and distinctly odd post on the subject of death, murder and assorted weird things, and as a method of letting out emotion it failed truly spectacularly. So today, I thought I might as well instead talk about depression.
I am not, incidentally, going to talk about this in a strict medical sense- I am neither qualified nor able to do so. But just-being-bloody-depressed-and-unhappy-half-the-time is something I have had to cope with for a large proportion of my life, and it is not something I have found to be well understood or, especially, appreciated.
Depression can arise from a wide variety of causes. For some people it’s ¬†getting too philosophical and deciding there is no actual point to life, for others it’s an alternative to anger with the way their life is working out, and for some it’s just loneliness and boredom. The latter is actually an especially interesting scenario- people are generally only depressed when their mind is not occupied. A case in point is Robbie Williams, who for years suffered terribly with offstage depression whilst onstage having the time of his life. One thing, however, crops up when the matter is given thought- depression does not happen to anyone. Some people will never have a reason to, some will always be surrounded by friends, some will spend their entire lives kept too busy to really get depressed, but many simply don’t have the personality for it. Depressives tend to be people who think a lot- they may not necessarily be intelligent, but they will almost certainly be introverted to an extent and self-reflect a lot. The trouble is, bouncing ideas off yourself is not the same as bouncing them off friends, and it is unhealthy for a normal human brain.
The big problem with this is that the kind of people who get depressed are, therefore, those least likely to seek help. If you are an introverted person, you may have an unimpressive social life, perhaps be bad in the company of others or had some embarrassing rejections, and you are often unlikely to feel that opening up is going to help you. Plus… there is something delightfully selfish in wallowing in your own misery. It feels good. While everyone passes by and doesn’t help you, you feel better than them, which for a depressive is often a rare and satisfying feeling (Many depressives have major self-esteem issues; the irony is that these are often completely unfounded, and often caused by obsessive perfectionism or overambitiousness). The natural instinct of a depressive is to revert to their lifelong tactic and turn in on themselves, and it can take a seriously analytical and critical mind to realise that this is what is causing all the mental damage. Some people will never get out of this cycle, and will go to their grave with the same depressed tendencies that have dogged them all their lives, never telling a soul. These people are few- after an extended period of time, only the strongest-willed of depressives will not have thought of suicide, and it’s an option far too many have taken. Herein lies the issue- depressives hide from the rest of the world to prevent it from helping them, but often refuse to help themselves.
I must interrupt the flow here- if anyone who ever ends up reading this suffers from depression, make a beeline for your nearest counsellor. This can feel incredibly defeatist, like you’re giving up on yourself, but some things cannot be handled on your own. Counselling does not mean you are some psycho with mental issues, and counsellors are not psychoanalysts or quacks. Think of a counsellor as a professional friend- someone who you can talk about stuff to with no fear that it’s going to get spread, and who knows the best way to help you. If you really can’t persuade yourself that you should be getting counselling, or just want another tactic, throw yourself into your social life. Focus on a group of mates you’re sure you can trust (disloyal friends are killers to your self-esteem (and possibly wallet), as well as being amoral scum), and focus all of your efforts into enjoyment. Buy the first round, have an extra beer or two, be as wild as your inhibitions will let you. It may not work, but it’s worth a try, and if you manage to get yourself a stable social circle then the fight is as good as won.
However, there is one almost sure-fire way to help a depressive, and that is to break¬†¬†their idea that introspection is a good tactic- to show them that the world is, actually, a good place full of good people. This not uncommonly happens by accident- the stressed-out worker with entering a spiral of depression receiving a rise and getting back on top of his rent. Many new parents may find coping with a new baby incredibly hard, and start getting depressed after the third night in a row that their little bundle of joy has woken up at 1am screaming their eyes out, and for them the release may come when such episodes stop becoming a nightly¬†occurrence- circumstance too can be a saviour. But for many circumstances may not simply fall their way again, and this is where other people come in. I can speak from experience when I say that nothing cheers up a depressive more than somebody coming up to ask them what’s wrong, and persisting past the initial mumbled ‘Nothing’ or ‘I’m fine’ (although be warned anyone who tries this- make sure you know when to back off, because people who happened to just be staring vacantly that day may not take kindly to you asking deep questions about their mental fragility). ¬†Somebody who genuinely wants to hear your problems and help you out is manna from heaven for a depressive, and there is also something deeply satisfying about knowing you’ve helped somebody else out. Depressives can sometimes be hard people to like- some have a tendency to be clingy while others demonstrate that there is clearly a reason they were out of the social loop. But if treated properly and pointed in the right direction, they are generally as nice enough people as the rest of us.
A little while ago, I heard a story about a schoolboy that I thought I could leave you with. He missed the bus home after school and, since he didn’t live too far away, decided to walk home. On the way back he met a guy in his year who was walking the same way- he didn’t know him well, only really as a face and name¬†(I believe he was new to the school), but he seemed like an OK guy. They got talking, in the way schoolboys do, and spent most of the way back talking about football. It was a Friday, and as they parted the first boy asked his new mate if he wanted to come for a kickabout in the park over the weekend- he’d already arranged it with a few of his mates, and thought they could use an extra player to make up the numbers. The guy agreed, they parted, and met the next day at the football.
About a year later, the two having become pretty close friends, they got to talking about the day they first met. The second boy said that, for all the time he had been going to that school, that was the first time he’d had anyone to talk to on the way home. He also said that in his schoolbag that day had been a length of rope and, for but a missed bus and a few friendly words, he would have hung himself that evening.