In Time of Defeat
J. R. Miller
The decision of the judges in any contest, tells where the honor goes. Then another testing begins—a testing of character. The contestants themselves are on trial now. By the way they bear victory and defeat respectively, they reveal what sort of men they are.
A young university student writes to a friend of an intercollegiate contest in oratory, in which he ranked fourth instead of first, as he had hoped to rank. He had been chosen to represent his university and he feels the chagrin of defeat, not so much for himself, as because his fellow students had entrusted to him the honor of their institution, and he had failed to win the coveted laurel for them. Yet he writes in a manful way of the matter. There is not in his letter a syllable of complaint that any unfairness was shown, not a hint that the decision of the judges was unjust, not a word in depreciation of the merits of the successful competitor. Though disappointed himself, he shows that he can be glad in another's success—even at the cost of his own, and writes in a strain that does him high honor.
We must all meet disappointment and experience defeat in some way, and at some time or other. Life is full of contests in which many contend—but only one wins the prize. Both in the case of the winner and also of the loser—there is a fine opportunity for noble, beautiful behavior. Sometimes the victorious contestant bears himself in such a way as to tarnish or sadly blot the honor he has won. He shows a spirit of vanity and self-conceit, he is puffed-up by his success, and he boasts in his achievement. Thus the successful contestant, though wearing his laurels, may suffer a far worse defeat in himself—than if he had failed in the competition. He has failed in manliness and in true nobility of spirit—and that is the saddest kind of failure one can suffer!
There is a Bible verse which says that he who rules his own spirit is greater than he who captures a city. Self-mastery is the finest heroism, and the highest achievement in life. The winner in the race adds yet greater honor to his successes—when he bears himself worthily, without boasting, with quiet modesty and humility, with delicate regard to the feeling of those he has defeated.
On the other hand, the loser in the contest robs his defeat of all humiliation or dishonor—when he meets it in a manly and noble way. Too often, however, the man who fails in the contest fails yet more seriously—in the enduring of his defeat. He challenges the rightfulness of the decision. He speaks disparagingly of his successful competitor and of his performance. He intimates that undue influence was brought to bear upon the judges. Or he sulks, showing hurt feelings, as if he had been deeply wronged. In these or in other ways—he suffers a second defeat far more humiliating and dishonoring, than that by which he lost the prize he sought—a defeat of manliness, of character, which shows him sadly lacking in some of the finest qualities of life.
There are considerations which lessen the sting of defeat, when a man has really done his best—and then has to permit another to bear away the honor which he sought to win. There are many contestants, and only one can be successful. From the beginning it is known that all but one of those striving so earnestly, must be disappointed. It is no harder for one to be defeated, than it would be for another. A noble man rejoices in another's honoring. There is a Scripture teaching which bids us prefer one another in honor—that is, be more than willing to have the other bear the honor, instead of ourself.
It is by no means an easy lesson to learn—to rejoice in another's advancement, when it means that we must accept the lower place. Yet when it has been learned—it brings sweet joy into the heart. The meek shall inherit the earth, said our Lord. Meekness does not lessen the earnestness of the contestant. He does his best. He puts his whole soul into the struggle, determined to win, if it is in his power. He concedes the same right, however, to his fellow competitors. If, then, one of them surpasses him—why should he indulge in bitter thoughts or feelings? If he had been victorious, he would have expected his companions to concede the honor to him cheerfully, and to rejoice in his victory. Now that another has won the prize, why should he not be magnanimous and be glad in his comrade's honor? The Golden Rule applies here.
Thus there is a twofold testing going on in all competitions among men—a testing of ability, strength, or skill, as the case may be; and a testing of the man himself. In the way he meets defeat—he shows what manner of man he is. Anyone can sing and be cheerful—when he has been successful. But to be outstripped by another, and still to keep sweet, saying no complaining word, remaining glad and songful—requires far more courage and strength, and is a much better proof of noble character.
We are in this world, not merely to get on—but to get upward. There are too many people, however, who think of success only as getting on in worldly ways—and who have no higher standard. Yet nothing is sadder than to see a man growing richer every day, advancing in his rank, according to the world's standard—and yet in his real life becoming every day less noble, less worthy. Every experience ought to make us somewhat better, ought to bring out in our character, some new shade of beauty, and develop in us some new phase of Christ-likeness. The man who cannot endure defeat, is not in good condition to meet life's struggles. Nothing can be better for him than defeat after defeat—until he has learned his lesson.
Every pathway has its downs—as well as its ups. When a man is climbing toward a mountaintop, he usually begins far away to make the ascent. First come the foothills and the lower ranges with valleys between. The upward rising is not continuous. Sometimes he is going upward toward the glittering summit—and then he turns downward into a valley. Again he ascends—and then descends. But all the while he is really climbing upward, each succeeding hilltop being a little higher than the preceding one, until, by and by, he gains the highest, the shining peak—the goal of his long and painful journey.
So it is in a true life. The course is never a continuous ascent. We advance, and then we must turn our faces downward for a time, when we seem to be losing—going backward. But if we are living as we should live, nobly and victoriously, we are always really advancing. Each day finds us a little farther on in the things that are worthy and noble, than we were yesterday. It is possible to seem to fail—and yet to be victorious in the higher sense. A man may lose money—and yet gain in character. His business may not be successful—yet if meanwhile he has kept himself unspotted from the world and has lived righteously and honestly before God—he has been a prosperous man.
It is not in the things one does in life—that the measure of one's advancement is infallibly registered. The true registering is within, in what takes place in one's own heart. The final question is not, what have you done? But, what has been done in you? Are you, whether in failures or in successes, in defeats or in victories, in adversity or in prosperity—ever growing nobler, gentler, better, more unselfish, more loving? That should be the outcome of all life's experiences.
It is possible to be victorious in all competition, and successful in all endeavor, to be rising steadily among men in the things by which the world rates men—and yet to be losing continually in the things which belong to moral and spiritual beauty. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; these are the qualities in which we must grow—if we would be really advancing in life, as God see us. And it is possible for a man to be making progress in these qualities of his heart-life, even in the midst of earthly failure.
Indeed, it is true that men ofttimes learn their best lessons—in the school of defeat. Proud nature in all of us needs to be disciplined, before it reaches its best and ripest—and discipline is not achieved usually without many lessons in humility. We are naturally proud, vain, and self-confident, and we need nothing so much as experiences which will reveal to us our own weakness and limitation. Continuous success and victoriousness in our own life—would only inflate still more our miserable self-conceit, and nourish in us qualities which would only mar the beauty of our character. The best school for us—is the school of defeat, wherein we are made aware of our weaknesses and cured of our wretched vanity and self-conceit! Peter's terrible failure made a man of him. The self-confidence with which he entered his temptation, was left behind in the dust where he had fallen, and he came again, sifted indeed—a smaller man in his own estimation—but a far better man.
Yet defeat does not always bring discipline. Men do not always rise from the dust, the stronger. Sometimes failure leads to disheartenment, which darkens into despair. All depends on the way one meets the bitter experience. Only when the spirit is unconquerable, does one rise again from defeat—humbled and chastened—but not broken, ready for new struggles. But if we are even dimly conscious of the splendor and glory of the life within us, of its divine possibilities, and of the help of God that is ever within our reach—we should never despair for a moment, nor regard any failure as final. We should learn our lesson—and go quietly and firmly forward to the new struggles that await us, confident that in the end—we shall be more than conquerors through Christ who loves us.
Someone says: "The besetting sin may become the guardian angel. Let us thank God that we can say it! Yes, this sin that has sent me weary-hearted to bed, and desperate in heart to morning work—can be conquered. I do not say annihilated—but, better than that, conquered, captured, and transfigured into a friend! So that I, at last, shall say, 'My temptation has become my strength; for to the very fight with it—I owe my nobility.'"