The Value of Failure: A Lesson From Soccer

One of the many things that separates me from my contemporaries is the fact that I played soccer in junior high (that designation dates me!) and high school.  Today soccer is de rigeur for people growing up in these United States, but until, say, the late 1970’s that wasn’t the case.  A good deal of that comes from the fact that I grew up in South Florida; escapees of Fidel Castro made the sport respectable and exciting, to say nothing of those who had made The Trip to Europe.  It paid off in other ways even then: high school classmate David Posey turned his soccer style kick into a stint in the NFL with the New England Patriots.

Right: ahead of our time, ahead of our society, boys’ and girls’ soccer at Palm Beach Day School, from the 1969 Islander.

I permanently dropped out of soccer in high school because I was too slow and clumsy, preferring to rack up athletic letters in managing (something that is more respectable now than then, too.)  But my last run with “no hands” sports took place in 1981, when a business associate of mine roped me into the Signal Mountain Soccer League.  In addition to all of the graded competitions for young people, someone got the idea of having the adults (in age, at least) play.  My associate needed a ringer from off the mountain, and so I hit the field once again.

I had a great time and it was great exercise, and our team did well, but there was one game in particular that stands out in my mind.  We were playing a team that we didn’t feel were much opposition, so our team captain stuck me at goalie.  I had never played goalie in my entire career at the sport; fullback was my preferred position.  But same team captain wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I waited for the ball in front of the goal.  It didn’t take the ball long to get there either; my team-mates were playing decidedly lackadaisical soccer that day.  I did what any totally inexperienced goalie would do: I let the ball pass me and go into the net, and we were down 1-0.

That was a wake-up call to my team-mates; they realised that a) their goalie was as bad as he said he was and b) they better get cracking and keep the ball away from our own goal and into theirs.  So they picked up the pace of their own playing and we managed to win.  (They never put me at goalie again.)

As we start the new year and face a really stupid election, there’s a lesson to be learned from my lackadaisical team-mates.  It doesn’t take a genius to realise that their largest mistake wasn’t as much poor judgement as overconfidence.  Once the error of their ways was apparent, they learned from their mistake, adjusted their attitude and enhanced their performance.  Sad to say, in the years since that fateful match this country has undergone what can only be termed as the largest ego-inflating exercise in human history.  Our entire system, from the education of the young to the motivation of the employed to the uplifting of the saints, is geared toward the self-image enhancement of just about everyone and the shielding of same from any disappointment or adversity.

That process was given a major boost by our victory in the Cold War.  It can be argued that the worst thing to happen to this country in the last century was the beginning of the Cold War.  Stipulating that, the second worst thing was its end.  The result was a world where we had no natural enemies.  For that to happen in an environment of self-image inflation was like giving a pyromaniac matches and jet fuel.  In retrospect the worst thing that took place was the credit bubble.  Starting with a population whose image of the fulfilment of Micah 4:4 went far beyond vines and fig trees, both our banking system and our government pulled every string to put people in houses they could not afford.  This contagion of irresponsibility, percolating through a financial system more than willing to accommodate it and banking on sovereign states not letting things go under, spread around the world.  Now we have a zombie system where small businesses struggle to get loans and expand the productive sector while every effort is expended to hold the system together irrespective of how unproductive the use of funds is or the long-term consequences.

Our military adventures reflect the same idea, from Bill Clinton’s “wag the dog” war in Bosnia and even before that in Haiti to the grand fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan.  We might as well face it: we’ve lost in Iraq, as surely as we had done more than a generation ago in Vietnam, our valiant men and women in uniform notwithstanding.  Our opponent needs to be a little more patient than the last one, but then again it was two years between the Paris peace accord and helicopters on the roof of our embassy.  Saddam is surely dead, but a CIA hit squad could have done that.  George Bush thought “democracy in the Middle East” could be accomplished through Iraq’s “reconstruction” and liberals were orgasmic about the Arab Spring, but the realities of Middle Eastern politics, from careerism to Islamicism, have made it a one step forward, two steps back proposition.

Between our economic woes and our military setbacks we should be learning something.  But there’s something that thirty years has done to our psyche: we cannot bring ourselves to learn from our mistakes any more, let alone fix them.  We are so obsessed with denying the reality of our mess that any hope of repair is lost.  Our only solution, it seems, is the bad habit we learned in the Cold War of solving all of our problems: throwing money at them.  As long as our faith based monetary system can keep the faith up, its weaknesses will never be apparent, but sooner or later that will run out too.

Today we live in a society where “reality based” secularists bemoan the existence of suffering in the world, sure as they are that the existence of same is proof of the non-existence of God.  But a fair question to ask is this: why do we, in command of all of this knowledge, allow it?  But that would be admitting failure, and you know how well that goes over…in the meanwhile, Christians need to be mindful of this:

My Brothers, whatever may be the temptations that beset you from time to time, always regard them as a reason for rejoicing, Knowing, as you do, that the testing of your faith develops endurance. And let endurance do its work perfectly, so that you may be altogether perfect, and in no respect deficient. If one of you is deficient in wisdom, let him ask wisdom from the God who gives freely to every one without reproaches, and it will be given to him. (James 1:2-5.)

Happy New Year!

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