The word “character” has been flitting around in my head the past few days. Let me start by stating that there is no platitude that will wipe away the scalding disappointment of a #1 ranked high school girls’ basketball team that loses the South Sectional Finals to a basket at the buzzer. The trite clichés like “you win some you lose some” or “guess this wasn’t their year” had to have come into being as a result of similar losses; as coaches and fans and parents groped for words designed to put positive spins on similar defeats. Witnessing our (fan) daughter’s distress, and the tears pouring down our (player) niece’s face, I grasped for any words more meaningful than those above, to help mitigate the agony of the moment. And while perhaps also a cliché, the concept that stuck with me and that I held on to while leaving the crowded gym, is that losses like these are character forming.
But what is character, after all? At our house, over the years, we added chair rails and molding and wooden valances to our aging ranch, all under the guise of adding “character.” A world traveler observing different cultures may perhaps be considered as on a mission to develop character. Volunteering for the homeless, or the sick, or the disadvantaged all enhance character. And a player, who holds her head erect, accepts disappointment gracefully, determined to move on with positive words and gestures, is clearly demonstrating character. Character is the sum of all the learned parts, the knowledge acquired through life’s depth and scope and pain and anguish. Character is when you look back ten years later and think, “Yea, it would have been great if we won that game, but I still made it here anyway.”
While I had all this in my head as we drove home from the game Friday night, I couldn’t say anything about it out loud. Because the thing about character is that you can only recognize it after you step back, when the distance of time and insight allow you to acknowledge it. What I remembered all too clearly Friday night, was my own, similar “character building” episode.
During my senior year in high school I had the potential to be ranked at a state level in springboard diving. To that end, I practiced endlessly, received extra coaching, and was hitting my peak just at the time the championships occurred. Having placed fairly well the year before, with demonstrated improvement in my diving there was a solid chance to exceed last year’s results. I daydreamed about success, visualized how the achievement would look on my college applications, of receiving write-ups in the town newspaper and the high school yearbook. For the entire fall sport season, chlorine emanated from my pores and every league competition brought us that much closer to the first championship meet, where I anticipated performing my best.
Except of course, I didn’t. Who knows whether it was nerves or lack of attention, or a focus on the wrong thing at the wrong moment, but after nailing my first dive of the competition I made such a serious mistake on the second that the judges were required to score it a zero. Perhaps I demonstrated a bit of character by getting up and scoring well on my third dive, even though I was already out of the competition, but to me at that moment, it meant nothing. Climbing out of the pool, I buried my face in my damp towel hoping that no one would notice the tears spilling from my eyes. It took months for me to reconcile myself to ending my high school diving career with that knife twisting letdown.
That’s why I knew that there was nothing we could say to our niece, or to our daughter that would alleviate the disappointment. They would both look at me like some middle-aged nutcase, if I told them that by some means that currently they can’t know, this loss is a gift. Of course they will never look back and say: Gee, I’m glad we didn’t win that game.” Nevertheless this setback will form at their core and will make them stronger, empathetic and more equipped to cope with future distresses in life.
Thankfully, the bonus that comes with years and experience is the ability to absorb these concepts more seamlessly. A loss may also be a win. That’s why, while plenty nervous, I already recognize positive aspects related to losing my job last month.