Apprenticeship With Defeat

By Paul Dunion | November 20, 2016

ironman-1043700_1280We live in a society offering ongoing homage to images of heroism.  Is our fascination with heroic gestures reflective of a desire to be victorious over death?  Is it symbolic of our investment in winning? Do we actually believe that our goal is to conquer life? A propensity for being heroic typically denies personal limits, leading to unnecessary drama and a misallocation of time and energy. Heroism as an isolated act aimed at being helpful may not be worrisome. It is problematic when it is a posture adopted as a general way to approach life.

When we succumb to the enchantment of the heroic, our humanity is at risk of being diminished as reprehensible and unfortunate.  The essential elements of the human condition – vulnerability, sorrow, gratitude and mercy –  are gradually marginalized as impediments to the heroic. Reality is replaced by the idyllic glitter of being exceptional, in the hope that some audience will applaud our efforts, their praise offering a temporary reprieve from a desolation of spirit that hungers for some audacious display of our alleged brilliance.  The way out of this emotional incosuration may be remaining an apprentice to defeat.


  Coming To Know and Accept Defeat

 * The defeat must be mine. The desired outcome must belong to us. It cannot be an expectation or desire that is borrowed from someone. We know defeat because the vision of the outcome and the devotional energy to make it happen are a personal expression of our longing.

* Deeply impacted by opposing forces. We believe we have done all that is in our control in order to achieve the desired result. We can feel the overwhelming impact of the impediments blocking our quest. We know what it means to employ our personal resources to no avail.

* See no viable way to achieve what is desired. There are feelings of helplessness and resignation, as we see no way to realize our desire. Our limits are palpable as we relinquish all efforting.

* Acceptance of defeat is not easy to come by. The ego abhors the helplessness affiliated with defeat. A natural tendency is to either decide something is wrong with us, with life or with God. At least we can claim the power to be in judgment of ourselves or of God. The self-indictment can include too stupid, too weak, too gullible, to shortsighted, etc. The allegations against God and life might be: unfair, oppressive and uncaring.

* Making peace with feelings of helplessness. Making peace with feeling helpless insults the ego’s self-aggrandized preoccupation with limitless power. The ego is so averse to feeling helpless that it will gladly commit to a campaign of revenge toward anyone who may have contributed to its defeat. We will engage in toxic vindictive strategies that often hurt us more than anyone whom our revenge is aimed. It is not uncommon for the defeated to engage in self-sabotage as a twisted expression of being in control, adding to the unwanted consequences of defeat.

poverty-570974_640What is this refusal to feel helpless all about? It is the one thing that makes defeat deplorable. My work suggests there are at least two explanations for deciding that feeling helpless should be taboo. The first is that such powerlessness suggests unworthiness. It may be that we simply do not know how to remain lovable while feeling helpless. Of course, that sets the stage for rejection. Who’s going to hang out with someone who is feeling helpless and therefore unlovable? For those folks who have experienced Chronic Trauma, feeling helpless and alone can suggest that death is imminent.

Ultimately, learning to accept defeat means learning to maintain our personal worthwhile feeling helpless. I highly recommend seeking support from someone who understands what it means to affirm personal worth, helping us override the cultural imperative to be victorious at all cost. It is also important to develop the kind of resiliency that allows us to postpone gratification, holding the faith that opportunity will once again present itself. Learning to make peace with helplessness means we can apprentice unearthing the gift.

The Gifts of Defeat

An ancient definition of the word defeat is “to undo”. If we can accept the tension inherent in feeling helpless, then we can move toward what to undo. I am reminded of the image of Odysseus in The Odyssey, defeated as he kneels in the sand on  Calypso’s Island.  His ship destroyed and crew dead, he sobs in deep sorrow. He is finally undoing his attachment to being clever, and only then does the goddess Athena beseech her father Zeus to help this defeated Greek. After some initial reluctance, Zeus sends Hermes to inform Calypso that she must free Odysseus and help build a raft in support of his return to Ithaca. Much can be said about this scene of divine intervention happening concurrently with utter helplessness. For now, let’s say that it is an opportunity to undo what may not be supportive to our life’s purpose. Let’s look at some general possibilities of undoing at a time of defeat and the gifts yielded by the undoing.

  • Undoing attempts at controlling what is out of our control. This is a major undoing that happens incrementally. The gift is the opportunity to bring time and energy to what we can control, to what we cherish. Such a shift often brings more serenity into our lives as we exercise less effort and striving toward what we cannot change.
  • Undoing excessive armament of the heart. Often, we live with excessive shielding of our hearts. Our hearts tend to be broken open during a defeat, similar to the deep sorrow of Odysseus. We might then deepen a capacity for compassion, forgiveness and acceptance.
  • Undoing being wrong sized. We typically live with either an oversized or undersized view of ourselves. When we live with the former view of ourselves, the gift of defeat may be greater humility accompanied by a fading self-righteousness.  We see this in the story of Odysseus who carried an aggrandized sense of his cleverness. When we have been satisfied with a deflated view of ourselves, the gift may be entitlement and an honoring of our strengths. Parsifal reflects being undersized as he lives from an early maternal mandate not to ask too many questions. His defeat enables him to reclaim the entitlement to be curious and acquire the Holy Grail.
  • Undoing excessive expectations of ourselves. This undoing tends to mitigate strivings toward perfectionism.
  • Undoing resistance to accept help. This is especially true for those of us operating with a compulsive self-reliance. Defeat may free us to accept genuine support.
  • Undoing confusion about where we belong. Defeat can point us in the direction of true belonging. This happens in a big way when we are defeated in a place that does not reflect what we cherish and value.
  • Undoing an adversarial relationship with fate. This is a critical shift advancing us in the direction of enlightenment. We spend a limited amount of time either as a victim of fate or attempting to triumph over it. Hence, we can energize our curiosities in the direction of exploring what kind of undoing a particular defeat may be asking for. It is likely that we will be undoing some distraction that limits our awareness and mindfulness.
  • Undoing a resistance to heal. As our hearts break open during defeat, we may be allowing ourselves to feel the grief associated with old wounds of abuse or neglect. We may be more willing to address the hypervigilence and ongoing burnout associated with PTSD. Or more ready to stop denying the consequences of an addiction that is making our lives unmanageable. We can hear the voice of defeat in the words, “hitting bottom”.  It may be that healing is not possible until we fall to our knees in defeat.

It may be helpful to end this discussion with a poignant story about defeat and healing. When Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa, he knew his country had been defeated by racism. It was not that Black folks or White folks were defeated by racism. The entire nation had been defeated by racism. Mandela enacted a protocol called Truth and Reconciliation as a way to non-punitively heal atrocities committed under Apartheid. One story involved a White South African who kidnapped a Black woman’s husband and burnt him to death tied to a large rotisserie. The man came back for the woman’s son and proceeded to kill him in the same manner. When the court asked the woman how she wanted to approach reconciliation, she reportedly explained, “This man took away everyone important to me. I want him to bring me the ashes of my husband and my son. Also, I want to come to my home regularly so I might be able to mother him.”

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