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Winning and Losing
by Jeremy Browning
Nov. 24, 2009 00:11

The fall rec volleyball league ended last week. My team lost in the semifinals and it was brutal. It reminded me of the anguish of competition and the accompanying adrenalin high. It reminded me why I spent so many nights of my youth restless in bed with a knot in my stomach.

Athletic competition is fiercely emotional. Observe how it affects the fans who aren't even physically involved, can be viewing from screens thousands of miles away and (usually) have much less to lose.

Last week, volleyball reminded me what it feels like to have so much to lose. It wasn't a whole lot in the bigger picture, but it felt like everything in the world was at stake during moments of the tie-breaker third match against our rivals in the semis.

Although it might be construed as "stressful," it's clearly something different. I live with a lot of stress. Tight deadlines are routine in my line of work and I frequently have thousands of dollars on the line in projects wherein it's not perfectly clear how we'll produce the prints we've been hired to produce. To quote Philip Henslowe from Shakespeare in Love, "Strangely enough, it all turns out well." How? "I don't know. It's a mystery."

My job is a lot like that -- only I do know how it all turns out, but looking back, it does seem like a mystery.

So stress is a given, but it's not the same as competition.

Now, when you have deadlines to meet and you're busy with details and pulling your hair out, that's one thing. But when you lose a bid to a competitor, when you find out a good customer went somewhere else because of a few dollars on a large order and somehow forgot all the freebies you gave out in the past -- when a competitor takes food off my family's table, now that is a gut-ache. It's a painful, throat-knotting experience that feels very much like the volleyball semifinals. And there's a moment when you ask why in the world do you do this to yourself?

It's a good question. Ultimately, I answer it with respect to my business by reminding myself that being in a competitive business climate, facing down the very real alternatives of profit and loss, is a proxy for the most basic competition, which is life vs. death. Most of us in America are fortunate enough to be quite removed by several layers of proxies from that basic question. That goes for the related absolutes like to eat or to starve, etc.

I don't mean to imply the universe is out to get us in a malevolent sense, only that one can't escape the fact of competition at the most basic level. There are plenty of other times, however, when we might feel those pangs brought about by Us vs. Them and rightly wonder whether a particular conflict is necessary.

That moment came in the third game of the semifinal match somewhere around the score of 17-13 in a game to 25 and we were losing. I remember looking back at my brother, who was serving, and then looking down at the floor and for a second, I wished only to be in my woodshop on a nice autumn day watching the router carve a perfect dado and smelling the fresh-cut wood.

My very next thought was something close to nausea when I thought that's how politics makes me feel. And right after that, I said to myself, in a way that sounded like a voice-over in a slick documentary about my life perhaps posthumously produced:

Politics is a sport, it's no way to run a country.

I've been toying around with it in my head for a bit now, wondering whether it may be true or just sounded good at the time.

Aspects of that notion seem enlightening, especially when I remember that running a country is only for the benefit of the citizens and politics, while it raises lots of money and kicks up lots of dust, certainly doesn't benefit Joe Citizen most of the time.

The other profound connection I see is a kinship with the Founding Fathers who were (I've heard) quite distrustful of power and those who would seek it. And so I come back (as always) to the notion of a country governed mostly by laws that are fair to all, and less by the transient whimsy of the political elite.

I do know that if I could articulate the grim view of politics that washed over me at that moment, you and I would have such a laugh at the vanity of those on the political world stage and the ugly contrast between their polished appearance and their vapid ideas.

Edited Nov. 24, 2009 01:13


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