I’m a loser. Over the years, I’ve repeatedly lost my wallet, keys, and precious childhood mementos. When I was a teenager, I lost jobs. As I young adult, I lost self-respect due to a lack of dating integrity. I lost an election. I lost my innocence, painfully scrapped away, year by year, by life’s grater. I’ve lost friends and relatives, from death and poor relationship management. With my wife, I’ve lost pregnancies.
I’ve had more than my share of blessings; the scale no doubt tips in my favor. But the losses, even seemingly small ones, like leaving behind my childhood stuffed animal in a move, my Rosebud, still sting, in deep and painful ways. I’m not alone in feeling this way. Evidence suggests that people prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains: it’s better to not lose $50 than to win the same amount. Some studies indicate that losses are twice as powerful, emotionally, as gains.
Part of the problem is the American approach to losses, summed up by “no pain, no gain,” which leaves many of us feeling even more like a loser when we’re wounded. In our national myth losses make us stronger, they’re the essential ingredient to becoming a winner. The archetypal story is one in which the hero losses everything – family, fortune, even health – and bounces back to become better in every way; spiritually, physically, emotionally, even an improved lover.
This is not my experience. My wife’s stillbirth did not make me better.
It’s true that hitting rock bottom is transformative, one way or another. But we shouldn’t confuse the instinct to overcome challenges with the healing of a heart. My father-in-law, orphaned during the Holocaust, responded with a relentlessly optimistic work ethic that created a thriving law practice and raised six children. But he still cries for his lost parents, missing childhood, his emotional makeup hard-sculpted by his unspeakable loss.
Failure caused by our own actions is different from shit just happening. We can learn from our mistakes, and be better off by doing so. But that’s a distinct channel from an uncontrollable flash flood of hurt. Likewise, stories of recovery can mislabel personal redemption as a heroic journey to success. The former millionaire who lost everything because he cheated on his wife and company, then gained his soul, may feel better, but wouldn’t it have been preferable if he hadn’t acting so badly in the first place? Should we credit stopping being an asshole with laudable success?
It’s impossible to avoid loss; we are defeated again and again, if only by our own bodies. That’s life; it should, in thoughtful, intentional, ways, be celebrated. It’s not helpful, though, to insistently designate damage done as an essential building block for achievement. That path leads to a terrible emotional cul-de-sac for those, many of us, who don’t achieve new heights after a financial, physical, or emotional beating. It arguably contributes to the rise in suicide rates among middle-aged men, trapped in self-loathing. I’m a loser because of my loss, and even more of a loser because my loss brought me nothing but pain.
Loss is long and quiet. Success is short and loud, sometimes so loud that it disrespects loss. We shouldn’t wallow in self-pity, nor refrain from finding ways to transform hurt into something more useful. But, at one point or another, and certainly at the end, we’re all losers. It’s something we have in common, even more than our successes. Let’s honor that.