Beyond Winning and Losing
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588 –1679) believed human beings were innately competitive, and that this trait ruled our mind. Even if we appear to mingle peaceably with one another, there is always an interior gladiator, ready to thrust and parry its way to a position of personal gain and glorification. Hobbes justified strong government as the only way to prevent the human race from destroying itself in a perpetual war of all against all.
The spirit of competition is alive and well, though nowadays, thankfully, many of its outlets are non-violent. Exams and targets are forced on us at an early age, and this means winning or losing, with the accompanying emotional ups and downs. Competitiveness is so pervasive, driving sport, business, politics, academia and the rest, that we sometimes forget why we are competing, and to what end.
But the urge, or duty, to compete, and the thirst for glory, can never be an end in itself. We indulge in ventures and adventures because we believe such actions will make us feel better. Feeling better means that the underlying motivation, even of the drive for absolute victory, is happiness.
Our competitive individuality is usually too busy to reflect on deeper issues, though such reflection reveals that true happiness is not to be found in the sphere of winning and losing. The flaws in that ethos were signified a little time ago by an outstanding sporting coach who, after a run of remarkable successes, had to taste the bitterness of what he felt was a significant failure. He admitted to feeling embarrassed and humiliated. He reflected that even the pleasure of past achievements was ‘wiped out’ when you lose; and of those achievements, only the first was meaningful, because you had the joy of surprising people. Thereafter, they expected you to win.
Winning and losing, honour and disgrace, are what the spiritual classics call ‘pairs of opposites’, and the wise person is one whose happiness is not made or marred by these visitations. In the lines of Rudyard Kipling, he is one who ‘can meet with triumph and disaster /And treat those two impostors just the same.’ They are impostors because the competitive spirit is not the whole of human nature, nor its most useful and mature phase. Sooner or later experience will prove that the gain of empirical prizes is not the way to permanent happiness.
The danger here is that we may become so disillusioned by what we judge (often wrongly) to be our failure that we abandon all application, and succumb to apathy and cynicism, as our active nature wearies and seeks only repose. Paradoxically, repose is the remedy for the fever of competition, but not the repose of apathy or giving up the game. It is the repose of inner peace—the peace that ever abides in the depth of the mind, yet is veiled by that competitive, outgoing spirit that causes all the unrest we experience.
Progress in Yoga is from restlessness to serenity, and serenity to the wisdom of enlightenment. It too requires gladiatorial valour in guiding our inner energies to harmony and the higher quest. But the ultimate triumph is unchallenged, for we shall know that our true nature is ‘one without a second’, the spiritual principle that transcends individuality and is the one power underlying and supporting the whole universe.