It was late Sunday afternoon, and I was finishing my chores. I was about to get out of my car to go grocery shopping when a young man’s comments made me stop and engage in what National Public Radio terms a “driveway moment.” That’s when you hear something so compelling that you shut the door, settle back in and really listen.
The program in question is my favorite Saturday morning (repeated late Sunday) game show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, which is based on your knowledge of the week’s news. Often wickedly funny in the off-color but smart way that the old Hollywood Squares used to be, the program invites celebrity guests to compete to answer questions about things they usually know nothing about.
For example some years ago, President Bill Clinton was quizzed about My Little Pony, and got all three answers right. He was also hilarious,self-effacing and engaging.
Recently, the program featured Nebraska’s Republican Senator Benjamin Sasse, who was so bright and funny I nearly drove into a ditch laughing. Sasse has a PhD, is wicked-smart, and wondrously self-effacing. All characteristics we could use in every single one of our politicians these days. One of the great joys of this program is that it skewers politicians ( and yes, it’s very leftleaning) but is an equal-opportunity inviter, which means that the guests represent a broad range of backgrounds and opinions. Besides, I learn a lot, and it’s huge fun to see if I know my news.
Yesterday’s guest was half-pipe expert skier extraordinaire David Wise, who won medals in South Korea. He had famously lost his skis twice, but the third time, they stayed on and he won.
Show host Peter Sagal asked him, with tongue in cheek, about how Wise was considering his last run after twice having his binders release at supremely inopportune moments.
It was Wise’s response that locked me into my seat.
Smiling, Wise joked that he was made for just one thing on this earth, which is to ski. Having fouled up twice, he was thinking, just before pushing off.
“I can glorify God through my failure just as much as through winning,” he stated, utterly without pretension. “ I can enlighten people just as much when I fail.” (To listen please visit https://www.npr.org/programs/wait-wait-dont-tell-me/.)
God is NOT in the Game
As a very long time football fan, I have watched for years as young men look to heaven and give glory to whoever their Maker might be when they catch a pass, make a key tackle or win the game with a touchdown.
However, here’s the thing. You never, ever, ever see them do the same thing when they screw up. That’s my problem. I wrote an article about this year’s playoff games with this in mind (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/god-football-game-julia-hubbel-/)
Look, my personal religious beliefs aside, I was deeply moved by this young man’s honesty. This is someone who understands that we don’t celebrate the sacred ONLY when we win. ONLY when we get applause. ONLY when we enjoy achievements. That self-serving, selfish, self-aggrandizing attitude doesn’t teach us a damned thing. Wise understands that you glorify your Maker most especially when you do a face plant.
Because that is when you learn the most. The way you behave in defeat says absolutely everything about your character, and what you really believe. Thanking God only when things go well is supremely arrogant. Thanking Him when your life lands in the sewer demonstrates courage. Because frankly, that’s when you need God the most.
It’s also when you find His presence, as Rabindranath Tagore writes, you find the grasp of His hand in your failure.
If we only hang out with the heavenly when things are going well, it’s like only visiting Mom when we need money, as I write in God is Not in the Football Game.
Failure Does NOT Suck
Failure plays an essential role in keeping us humble. It reminds us that we are not only defined by our successes. We are even more so defined by our honorable comportment when we screw up royally. How we react to those who beat us out for the job, at the end of the race, who got the girl (or guy.)The elegance and grace by which we move through life’s vicissitudes speaks loudly to who we are, and the value we place on the critical life lessons that have the potential for making us extraordinary.
For example, Carolina Panther’s quarterback Cam Newton’s rude and churlish behavior in front of the press after he lost the Superbowl. Memorable for all the wrong reasons. I lost all my respect for him after that.
David Wise is indeed very wise. I may not believe in the same things he does, but I very much believe in how he chooses to frame those moments when the bindings release, his skis go willy-wonkers, and he may perhaps have to give the top of the podium over to the better skier. That’s courage. That’s character.
Perhaps most importantly, that’s the very definition of faith.
When people fling their faith around only when it’s handy, only as it makes them look good, only when it’s time for them to receive accolades, that’s not faith. That’s grandstanding. To my mind, those folks don’t have a relationship with God. They have a relationship with their egos.
Young people like David Wise set the kind of example we all need. More and more people are choosing to define themselves as spiritual as opposed to aligning with a particular faith. It makes no difference where we align ourselves. What does define us is how we practice whatever faith we say is ours. David Wise is a true practitioner. I don’t have to believe the same way he does to be deeply inspired and feel a lot of admiration.
Far more so, than say, when I see some talented NFL receiver nab a ball in mid-air, make the TD and then give it up to God.
How about you muff that catch, then give it up to God? Because that’s when you truly learned something.
Our greatest heroes know how to fail. And they show us how to do it with grace, courtesy and kindness to those who beat them. With humor and humility, people like David Wise.
With all due respect to college football coach Red Saunders of Vanderbilt, (the real source of the quote, not Vince Lombardi) “Winning isn’t the only thing.” It may cost you your job if you don’t win often enough. But it’s when you fail that you find out who you are.
Interestingly, Lombardi, near the end of his life, said something else about that quote: “I wished I’d never said the thing…I meant the effort. I meant having a goal. I sure didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.”
Precisely. When it’s become common to cheat, take steroids, spy, undermine each other, dope up, lie and whack someone on the leg to ensure victory, then winning does nothing more than peel back the outer layers to expose the rot beneath. Winning at the expense of our humanity is absolutely nothing. We have no honor in that kind of achievement.
At that point, winning is nothing. Which is why the Russians got booted out of the Olympics, and why I will always despise Lance Armstrong. A man with the character of a pissed off cobra, whose consistent behavior is a perfect symptom of what we are willing to trade off to get the yellow jersey.
A Faustian deal with the devil cannot possibly pay off. Even Lombardi learned that lesson. The only true win we can enjoy is the peace we find with our failures, and the grace with which we receive our wins. Both, we give to those forces far greater than ourselves. They are not ours. They are gifts.
The wisest among us, including young David Wise, are grateful for both.