Winning isn’t as important as the worthy struggle

Winning can be a wonderfully exhilarating and validating experience.  Who doesn’t like to win, whether the win comes in a friendly game of golf or bridge, a business deal, or some other contest?  No matter how small or great the stakes, winners in any competition usually gain recognition and a nod of respect. Success is thrilling. Winning feels great.

And how about those who do not win?  Well, we have some pretty derogatory things to say about them, don’t we? They are the losers, the failures, the also-rans, the has-beens and the duds. Losing does not feel great. No one wants to lose.

But maybe it’s worth reconsidering the commonly accepted belief that winning is always good and losing is always bad, if for no other reason than from time to time we all lose. Sometimes our losses are our own doing, but some of our losses seem thrust upon us and are just unavoidable. And perhaps, oddly enough, there are even some losses of which we can be proud.

One of the most intriguing stories in the biblical book of Genesis tells of a nocturnal wrestling match between Jacob and a mysterious individual.  Was Jacob’s opponent a man, an angel, God? The story is a bit unclear about the identity of the other wrestler, but tells us that the two struggled against each other all night long without a winner emerging. Finally, as dawn approached, Jacob agreed to release his opponent, but only if he will bless him. And so the wrestling opponent offers Jacob the blessing of a new name and with it, a new identity. As day breaks, Jacob (now Israel) went on his way though he had been wounded by the struggle. Wrestling against a more powerful opponent had left its mark upon him, even as it had blessed him.

The wisdom of that ancient story would seem to lie in acknowledging the gifts that may come by wrestling and struggling with forces more powerful than ourselves. Yes, we could probably preserve a nearly perfect winning streak through life and avoid a lot of bumps and bruises as well if we simply walked away from difficult struggles of all kinds. But we would probably be weaker, poorer and smaller by that choice.

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a fascinating reflection inspired by the story of Jacob’s unwinnable match. In his poem, The Man Watching, Rilke writes: “When we win it’s with small things and the triumph itself makes us small … Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.”

What are you wrestling with? Is it significant enough to be a genuine struggle? Are you engaging a worthy opponent? Perhaps our biggest challenges – the ones that rise up to test our strength and our ingenuity, to sharpen our focus, recharge our vision, and firm our resolve – are something like divine challenges. When we willingly wrestle with difficult problems we cannot easily surmount, something extraordinary happens. Winning seems to matter less and less, because in the worthy struggles we are being renewed, restored and remade.  We are being blessed.

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