Snatching Defeat from the Esophagus of Victory

I. Y’all, I’m going to be real with you: last Thursday night, I experienced something […]

Ben Self / 3.5.18


Y’all, I’m going to be real with you: last Thursday night, I experienced something that made me feel more intensely depressed than I have felt in a really, really long time. What happened, you ask? Did someone I love pass away? Did I lose my job or break up with my girlfriend? Did I watch a documentary about the Syrian Civil War? Nope, nope, nope.

I watched a basketball game. I watched what has been my favorite team in all of sports since I was an infant—the currently unranked Louisville Cardinals men’s basketball team—lose to the #1 ranked Virginia Cavaliers on Louisville’s home floor on senior night… AFTER BEING UP BY FOUR POINTS WITH 0.9 SECONDS LEFT ON THE CLOCK.

I have been a basketball junkie most of my life and I have never seen a team lose like that. It’s an understatement to say it made me physically ill—I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t stop sweating, I tossed and turned and cursed and moaned and just lay there in bed hating everything for hours, wishing I could call in sick the next day. That night, heart throbbing, I promised the universe with all of my might that I was never, ever, going to watch another sporting event. I had had it.

To be honest, I still feel half serious about that promise. I don’t want to hear anyone talk about March Madness this year. I can’t even remember the last time I felt this miserable about something… (Actually I can, but I’d rather not talk about it.)

If you’re wondering how much that win would have meant to Cards fans, let me just say: not only is my team on the verge of missing the tournament for the first time in over a decade, but in the past year we have had 123 wins and the 2013 National Championship vacated as a result of one recruiting scandal, and lost our Hall of Fame coach as a result of another. Oh yeah, and more sanctions will likely follow.

Of course, I know it’s probably about time Cards fans be reminded of what it feels like to really lose again. It’s only fair that we share in the collective misery. There are 347 Division I college basketball teams. Only 68 make the tournament. Only 1 wins it all. That’s a lot of losing. That’s a lot of misery and heartache. (In fact: literal heartache. There’s some evidence that sports fandom increases a person’s risk of cardiac events. ) Which makes you wonder, if it’s such an unrelenting source of misery, why do we love sports so much?

I know it doesn’t make rational sense, caring so intensely about what is mostly just a modern form of escapism. And there are plenty of holier endeavors we might spend our time and money on. I also know exactly what my mindfulness meditation teacher would say to me: “The root of suffering is attachment.” That is, if you stop caring, you’ll stop suffering so much. Fine.

But detaching oneself from fundamental aspects of one’s identity or even nature isn’t exactly easy. And… attachment is fun anyway, right? For what it’s worth, this particular attachment—this loyalty—was bred into me. It’s a part of who I am. I was born in 1986, the last year that Louisville won a championship (that hasn’t since been vacated). My dad, a native Louisvillian and die-hard Cards fan, turned one of his old Louisville t-shirts into my first blankie. I still have that thing—it still smells like all the comforts of home, though the old Cardinal logo—a big muscly bird with teeth dunking a basketball—has grown faint. I’ve followed the Cards through thick and thin. The 2013 championship run was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I can still remember highlights from that thrilling final game against Michigan like it happened yesterday. And yet…that’s all shrouded in shame now.

I almost wish I could detach—or even forget it all, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind style. Because it’s not just those good memories that stick with you. It’s the bad ones as well, probably more so. I’m probably going to remember last Thursday’s loss and the utter shame of being the first team in NCAA history to have to vacate of National Championship as keenly and as sharply as any win from the 2013 tourney.

And that just seems unfair, somehow. Why, dear Lord, must so many of our strongest and most lasting memories be those of intense embarrassment, failure, or pain? Why not let us keep the wheat and lose the chaff? But I know I’m just being bitter. By God’s grace, far more chaff has been jettisoned from my consciousness over the years than I’ll ever know. Still, this one hurts.


In the world of sports, whether as fans or as athletes, we tend to make winning our highest value—sometimes the only thing that matters. The ethos is simple: “You play to win.” Many fans come to expect winning, even demand it, and in the process lose sight of any other real value in sports. (Side-note: My parents once knew a little league soccer coach down in Florida who bought a massive cake for the team on the day of their final game, and when they lost, threw the whole thing in the trash.)

Of course, we can see this tendency more broadly in Christianity and Western culture. The way Christianity is often framed emphasizes its “utility” as a means of achieving success—even eternal reward—while minimizing all issues relating to suffering, lamentation, sacrifice, etc. A recent meditation on the “Mystery of Suffering” by Richard Rohr touches on this point:

[W]e all must go into darkness to see the light, which is counter-intuitive for the ego. We resisted this language of “descent” and overwhelmingly made Christianity into a religion of “ascent,” where Jesus became a self-help “savior” instead of a profound wisdom-guide who really transforms our minds and hearts.

In recent centuries, reason, medicine, technology, and efficiency have allowed many modern, middle- and upper-class people to rather “successfully” avoid the normal and ordinary “path of the fall.” Yet the perennial and mature tradition of all world religions, and even the modern addiction recovery movement, believes that growth comes through some form of “falling upward,” not climbing upward, which is all about ego.

Rohr makes the critical distinction between “falling upward” and “climbing upward”. But plenty of religious folks don’t. When suffering arises, they still tend to look for that silver lining—to treat it as simply a means of growth, an opportunity for “climbing”. Of course, some suffering is necessary as we grow. But in the midst of it, that just doesn’t matter that much—I don’t need to hear that suffering might be good medicine for me when I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel.

C.S. Lewis famously said: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Maybe he’s right. But also, maybe he’s not. At least, not always.

If you spend much time around sports, you learn that there’s a semi-religious culture among athletes around how they deal with loss, around how they use failure to fuel their furious pursuits of excellence. In mythologizing every great athlete—from Jordan and Ali on down—we tell stories of how they overcame weakness, loss, pain, and hardship to become “the Greatest”. But such stories are not really about failure: they’re about winning, about “climbing upward, which is all about ego.” And they create a false narrative that winning is always within reach if you only try harder next time, only out-work and out-hustle the other guy.

I once had a spiritual mentor that gave a talk about the spirituality of long-distance running. When I first heard about his topic, I said to him: “Oh, it’s spiritual because you’re out in nature and you’re able to clear your mind and such…” And he said: “No, it’s spiritual because it teaches you how to push through suffering.” I initially thought: Ugh, that doesn’t make spirituality sound like much fun! Of course, he’s not wrong. Suffering is part of the gig. And it must be endured. And sometimes we must learn what it has to teach us. But can we please not romanticize it?

Sports and fitness are rife with nonsensical inspirational slogans about the virtue of pushing through adversity and the power of the human will. Take, for example, this goofy list of “21 Rock Solid Dwayne Johnson Quotes to Inspire You to Success”, or this list of “The 100 Best Sports Quotes of All Time”. Athletes love to say stuff like “Pain is just weakness leaving the body” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. And so do religious people.

But as a 2010 Psychology Today article pointed out, the opposite is often true. To use an obvious example: “Developmental research has shown convincingly that traumatized children are more, not less, likely to be traumatized again. Kids who grow up in a tough neighborhood become weaker, not stronger. They are more, not less likely to struggle in the world.” Anyone who’s worked much with impoverished kids knows how altogether obnoxious it is to romanticize the hard-knock life: “The school of hard knocks does little more than knock you down, hard.”

More often than not, this is true for adults who are faced with immense suffering as well. Gratuitous suffering usually just wrecks a person. I recently heard a story on NPR about concerns over a possible uptick in rates of depression and suicide among America’s dairy farmers, who’ve now struggled “through their fourth year of depressed milk prices.” It’s a trend that has already been observed among America’s farmers more broadly:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, farmers, as a group, have a higher suicide rate than any other occupation, even twice as high as vets.

Experts say farmers face a kind of “perfect storm” of financial pressure and a sense of powerlessness in an industry where prices are set by the government, combined with social isolation, and a self-reliant spirit that may make them loathe to seek help.

Farmers are taught to “cowboy up, tough it out, be a man,” says Robert Fetsch, who’s studied farmers and ranchers at Colorado State University. “Many are scripted to be afraid to reach out for help, and afraid to say ‘I’m hurting.'”

In this kind of context, it’s just so damn stupid to romanticize suffering. Sometimes you just get beat, and there’s no overcoming it. You just suffer, and there’s no silver lining. Sometimes a wrecked life just wrecks you. Sometimes a broken heart just breaks you. And the only thing you can do is ask for help—and the only thing the rest of us can do is offer it. There’s nothing necessarily redemptive about suffering. And even when there is, for God’s sake, we shouldn’t be so flippant about it. Sometimes a person just has to suffer awhile, and be allowed to.

Determination, dedication, resilience—these are great traits to have. But they don’t guarantee anything in sports or life. Everybody loses. Everyone, even Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, will someday be reduced to a wrinkly, wobbly, hunched-over, adult-diaper-wearing sack of human mush. The only guarantee in life is loss, Dwayne. And it’s coming for you.


As silly as it sounds alongside the carnage throughout the wider world, it’s going to take me awhile to get over the heartache of Louisville’s mind-bending last-second loss to Virginia—not to mention the larger trauma of the events of this past season. I’ll never be able to feel the same unfettered pride and joy in Louisville’s 2013 championship run. That’s forever tainted. Sure, Montrezl’s monstrous fast-break alley-oop dunk still happened, but it’ll never be quite as thunderously triumphant a memory for me as it once was. So what do we do? Try to move on? Savor life’s little victories? Just endure? I suppose all of the above. And who knows? The season’s not quite over: we might still win a game or two. But the point is: there’s no miracle salve for heartache, even one as trivial in the grand scheme as this one.

All the suffering in the world can’t be reduced to some kind of quaint object lesson. It just is. And we all share in its sheer gratuitousness. Which I guess means that the best thing we can do is be real about it. Our suffering may not have any value or utility, but if we aren’t real about it we can be sure it won’t. As Brennan Manning once wrote, “In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others.”

Perhaps the most basic message of Christianity is that in the face of so much suffering and loss God is with us and that for that reason there’s hope—that even in death, the ultimate defeat, there’s life in God. Richard Rohr continues:

Many of the happiest and most authentic people I know love a God who walks with crucified people and thus reveals and “redeems” their plight as God’s own. For them, God is not observing human suffering from a distance but is somehow in human suffering with us and for us. Such a God includes our suffering in the co-redemption of the world, as “all creation groans in one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8:22).

God came to save the losers, not the winners. Which, of course, is all of us.