Learning to lose

I grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Our neighborhood pastime, on long summer days, was punchball, an ideal city game. We had no need for a sprawling baseball diamonds or fancy equipment. Our playing fields were the New York City streets. We had no expensive bats and gloves. Our gear was a fifty-cent Spaulding rubber ball and a human fist ready to smack it. There was no Babe Ruth to "hit it a mile." Athletic prowess was measured not by linear distance but by the number of manhole covers our hits could reach. Our heroes were known as "two-sewer punchers.”

I was frequently invited to participate in the games played on 7th between Avenues K and L by my cousin Eli, who was a few years my senior. It was fun to compete, but invariably, I was overpowered by the older boys, who would win consistently. Even at eight or nine years old, I typically responded to such outcomes by kicking the nearest car and crying profusely. Eli would try to console me with humor by urging me, for example, that it was my civic duty to stop crying because the public sewer system was not designed to accommodate such large quantities of water.  On one occasion, however, when, despite my cousin’s clever sarcasm, my whimpering persisted, he barked, "For God''s sake already, learn how to lose!"
Eli was aptly labeling my behavior as immature and telling me to grow up, but with time, I came to realize that, more important, he was teaching me that there is inherent value associated with losing.
Earlier this week, after I’d spent a significant number of hours trying to recruit a talented physician to join my department, I thought about my cousin’s advice. I hadn’t been recruiting as much as I’d been wooing the man, yet rather abruptly, my professional courtship was cut short by a frank rejection.  The doctor decided to join the staff of a competing hospital.  I felt like one of the spurned lovers described in a Shakespearean sonnet.  But when I checked with my emotions, I realized that I was feeling also as if I’d lost a battle that I’d been waging.   In rejecting my offer, the doctor sent me the equivalent of a "Dear John letter" in which he explained what he had liked and disliked about the position. Luckily, that letter inspired me to regroup and see the loss from a positive perspective. Its information allows me to fix a problem that might elicit rejection from the next person whom I try to hire.  
There are other circumstances in which losing can be re-framed. I was recently involved in a stark conversation between a husband and his 43-year-old wife who is suffering from metastatic breast cancer. Given the extent of her disease and her lack of response to the most aggressive treatments available, she probably has less than six months to live, at least according to tables used to make such macabre predictions. The couple spoke frankly about her approaching death and how the husband would continue his life afterward. The woman urged him to date several of the single women in their community.  She was instructing him to adopt a process by which the void created by loss might be filled.  It is not often that I am privileged to witness such noble, dare I say charitable, behavior!
Even when specific solutions for coping with loss aren’t evident, loss can still have redeeming features.  We can, for example, intuit ways to overcome despair. This morning, I sought to help a dying patient uncover sources of hope in his life. Before I could probe his soul, he asked that I take a few steps back. "I might be losing my battle with cancer" he observed "but I have a unique chance to find what it is that will make my remaining days matter."   Despite not yet knowing his answer, the patient managed to engineer a challenge for himself. I envy his creativity and enthusiasm.
But perhaps the most important point is the most obvious. The main lesson to learn in losing is that it''s entirely likely you will lose again.  Losing is common and so we must find ways to deal with losing and with loss.
There is a cottage industry full of people who have said positive things about losing.  If you''ve seen the website of the organization that I founded, you may quickly have concluded that I''m one of those people.  If so, you would have a point. Although when people face loss, I may not always know precisely how to help them, I am quite sure that when someone learns how to lose, in itself, that person is anything but "a loser".
Shalom, Ben.
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