Last Saturday morning, I paid $4.00 for the privilege of sitting in the stands at a grade school gymnasium to watch my son’s fifth-grade basketball game. They suffered a loss that eliminated them from the tournament, capping off a 1-9 season.
By the time we got back to the car, I was ready to shake it off and go to McDonald’s. But it has been a long time since I was ten years old, and I forget how heavily small disappointments weigh on a child. So, amid frustration and dejection, I needed to paint some context around what seemed like a dismal result.
There are plenty of clichés to pull out at a time like this: Winning isn’t everything. It’s about the journey, not the destination. Your best is good enough. Focus on the positives. The past is in the past. Better luck next time.
Those platitudes hold important lessons. Resilience, persistence and self-evaluation are critical skills for success in life.
Most of us prefer winning, of course. It feels good to work hard and succeed. However, losers have one great advantage. They get to discover something about themselves that winners rarely appreciate — that they have dignity and worth regardless of their success or failure. It’s a lesson we should never overlook.
This final game also occurred on the heels of Catholic Schools Week. I had spent much of the previous week attending events and reflecting on the impact of Catholic education. Sports and extracurriculars are perhaps a less obvious part of this equation. There is usually nothing overtly religious about a basketball game.
Nevertheless, the mission of a Catholic school is to educate the whole person — body, mind and spirit.
Our Catholic faith is one of the best contexts in which to understand failure. We are no strangers to losing; our history is full of misfits and failures. Who would bet on Mary, an unwed teen mother? Or on Moses, who searched forty years for the Promised Land? Or on Paul, a short, bald guy with a checkered past? Or on any of the martyrs who literally lost it all? None of these amount to much by the world’s standards. In the cross, we see the ultimate example of disappointment, the worst loss the world has ever suffered. Yet also in the cross is the discovery that love is stronger than death, that human worth is not indexed to worldly success.
Last Saturday morning, Father was in the stands, as he often is. That Saturday evening, Coach was in the pews, as he often is. This matters. It reminds us that a life of faith is seamless. It is not confined to the church; it flows forth from and then circles back to the Eucharist.
Faith formation continues on the court, where students come to know the church’s consistent ethic of care for the whole human person through the concrete experiences of striving, winning and losing. Coaches, who share their gifts of time and saintly patience, are true teachers of the faith. I’m especially grateful for my son’s coaches. In spite of loss — or maybe because of it — they bring us nearer to holiness.