Losing Reveals What Victory Can't

COMMENT

September 25, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

If asked to choose between winning and losing, most of us, of course, would rather win.

But as much as we like winning, we have to accept that failure is part of life, particularly in contests were only one person can win and the rest lose.

Along with all our other current problems, we seem to have developed into a society of poor losers. Many of us -- particularly those in positions of leadership -- have trouble accepting losing graciously.

Just look at the actions of some politicians after Maryland's primary election.

Rep. Helen Bentley, who was surprised that she lost the GOP gubernatorial nomination, brushed away Ellen Sauerbrey's hand at a Republican breakfast the morning after the election, revealing a petty and vindictive side.

It would have been more becoming for Mrs. Bentley to acknowledge that the majority of her party's voters had selected Mrs. Sauerbrey to carry the GOP banner into the general election. By snubbing Mrs. Sauerbrey, Mrs. Bentley also demonstrated contempt for the majority of the Republican voters.

In Carroll County, we saw equally shocking behavior from purported leaders.

County State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman, losing an extremely close race to his political nemesis Jerry F. Barnes, blamed everyone but himself. Members of the defense bar, this newspaper and apathetic voters all were responsible, he said.

Rather than accept the voters' verdict, Mr. Hickman has decided to wage a write-in campaign. He believes that if given another opportunity, Carroll voters -- Republicans, Democrats and independents -- will return him to office.

The history of recent write-in bids in Carroll County does not bode well for him, though. In the last quarter-century, two major write-in efforts -- T. Bryan McIntire's 1970 race for state's attorney and Doris Pierce's race for commissioner in 1982 -- failed.

Considering this history, Mr. Hickman should prepare himself for another loss. He also should ponder the old New England proverb: "If you want to know what a man is really like, take notice how he acts when he loses."

David Grand's gracious comments after losing his bid for the Democratic nomination for county commissioner stood in sharp contrast.

"I may have lost the popularity contest, but I won a much sweeter victory by meeting so many nice people," he said at a post-primary breakfast and later in a newspaper ad.

It takes a considerable amount of internal strength to accept defeat. As a rule, we respect people who don't allow defeat to define or embitter them.

Even when he was victorious, the late Richard M. Nixon couldn't shake the image of a poor loser. His remark "you won't have Nixon to kick around any more" after his defeat in the 1962 California governor's race haunted him throughout his successful political career.

A stoic, yet magnanimous, acceptance of a painful defeat often increases a person's stature. There are a number of examples of people who kept their sterling reputations despite defeat.

Robert E. Lee returned to Virginia after losing the Civil War and encouraged his fellow Southerners to accept the outcome of the war and accept the peace. His nobility in defeat clearly demonstrated his personal integrity and outstanding character and enhanced his reputation.

The majority of us too often subscribe to football coach Vince Lombardi's old chestnut that "Winning is the only thing."

If you don't believe that, attend a game in any youth recreation league. At almost every contest, parents scream at their kids for missing a pass, striking out, for failing to block a shot. With strident voices, veins bulging from their necks, these parents yell the most horrendous and degrading insults at their children, neighbors' children, umpires and referees.

What kind of self-image do youngsters develop if their parents behave this way? It's obvious: Rotten self-images.

They become withdrawn, surly and defensive. They don't take chances because they are afraid of failing.

When these children become adults, they pass along the same deplorable traits to their children.

Last fall, ill-mannered adults sullied a number of interscholastic soccer and football games by yelling at players and coaches. Their juvenile behavior and rude manners ruined the events for other spectators.

These parents are also telegraphing a strong message that these kids are defined only by success on the playing field. If defeat is unacceptable, then parents are also sending a subliminal message that winning at all costs is acceptable. Such an attitude encourages cheating, dissembling, blaming others and other deplorable behavior.

Those aren't the traits we want to cultivate in our children or in ourselves.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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