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The Winning Trap

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

We are suckers for a beautiful woman, a handsome man, and winning. Myself susceptible to the first, admiring of the second, and guilty of the third, I nevertheless must retreat (or better yet, recoil) from the obsession with coming out on top. At least right now.

I like to think that I work around, live around, people with reasonably strong moral codes. They will likely shout down racism, recycle whenever possible, attend church far more than I do, and exhibit any number of neighborly traits that they don't have to, except that they have probably been raised right and seek to live out the traits that were instilled in them when they were young.

But give them a chance to win, and it will all go out the window.

The purchaser of the lottery ticket, the sports fan, the irate parent whose child has been "wronged", the hardcore ______ (insert political party here), the friendly arguer who turns unfriendly--all have to emerge victorious.

Some aspect of our lives, and maybe it's our capitalistic lives, has convinced us that there are some things that we absolutely must win. There are rivals that we must face down. There are paybacks that we must not concede. There are affronts that cannot be tolerated. There are situations that must be corrected, situations that are unimportant when compared to the amount of time and/or money that we are suddenly willing to invest in them.

Even though most readers of this blog are not Japanese, we nevertheless have mostly embraced the concept of "saving face," which is its own form of winning, but our face-saving is a perverted form. Somehow our pride has come to depend on the outcome of contests that we have not participated in or battles that we have not fought, but ones that are associated with the reputation of the institutions that we work for or live under, the academic institutions we attended, or, in the worst case, teams and organizations that we simply share geography with.

And our only hope of seeing the stupidity of this is if it is a situation where we don't care whether or not we win. I exist right now in that rare void. I see the folly of sacrificing personal and societal values in order to win. Right now, the desire to win that surrounds me concerns sports. And I am miserable. Sweet Jesus, I am miserable. I am so consumed with the wrongness of what I am watching that I can barely think of anything else.

Of course, if this were a situation where I did need to win, then it really wouldn't matter if Satan incarnate was driving the race car or passing the football or running for the office that is important that I have put my hopes behind. I, too, have been consumed by the desire to win sports. If you are a Steeler fan as long as I have been, then you have tolerated a member of the "Steel Curtain" taking pot shots at cars on the freeway back in the late 70's and you have tolerated your quarterback assaulting a young woman in Georgia just in the last couple of years, and any number of misdeeds in between.

But it feels different right now, because no matter where we work, whether it's the U.S. Post Office or Bennigan's or some corporation in a high rise building in a large city, that place of employment espouses some set of institutional values, and however hokey those values might be, however overwrought a mission statement might seem, we still grab for those values as some kind of a benchmark. And if we feel like we are not hitting that benchmark, then we start not to believe.

Because nowhere, even in the most cynical, profit-driven Wall Street firm does the motto read "We will win at all costs" or "We will chuck our values out the window in order to win." No place is that outwardly craven.

Winning is a trap. It becomes its own goal and casts aside any benefits or lessons or silver linings or whatever noble might have inspired a desire to win in the first place. Left instead is just the winningness itself, an unpolished stone, which brings only the briefest of satisfactions, which is all that it can do, because when we are left time for any kind of reflection, we can't help but remind ourselves what it cost us to get there. By the time that stone is cut and polished, we haven't the interest and can barely look at it, so focused are we on the next stone, the next win, that we must attain.

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