Jumping the Net: On the Necessity of Learning to Lose Well
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Another WASP note: the sacredness of dealing well with disappointment.
At my family ranch, the almost year-round sport (other than Marco Polo in the pool -- or in my childhood, riding) was croquet on the lawn. Before this starts to conjure up images of something English and genteel, let me point out that the lawn was pockmarked with gopher holes, the wickets were placed haphazardly, and the canyon that dropped off the edge of the lawn was home to rattlers and bobcats -- and yet still very much in-bounds.
Someone always won these croquet matches. Everyone else lost. And it was in these games that I learned that the worst thing one could be wasn't a loser, but a sulking or sore one. Among the clan, taking high-risk, high-payoff strategies was something we applauded, but when they failed, as they usually did, you were expected to congratulate the winner effusively. (Winners were expected to be modest and self-effacing in victory.)
This carried over into everything else in life. Sports were fun, life was fun, love was very interesting -- but my family raised me to expect disappointment and failure. Not that they thought I was the sort of boy who would never amount to anything; rather, they knew that life is full of setbacks, and setting a child up to be gentlemanly and cheerful in the face of defeat and heartbreak was perhaps the single most important tool they could give him (or her).
As my grandmother put it, "be the gentleman who jumps over the net" -- a reference to the old tennis tradition, generally abandoned, where the losing player leaps over the net into the court of the winner to shake his hand, grinning all the while. I learned to "jump the net" when I lost the election for home room vice-president in seventh grade: I learned to jump the net when I didn't get the part I wanted in the play; I learned to jump the net when the girl I liked wanted another boy instead.
Jumping the net is not about pretending one didn't want to win. In a tennis match, everyone knows the loser tried their best and still came up short -- it's how you handle public defeat that defines your identity. Losing, of course, became character-defining: a gentleman was not defined by his victories or successes, because they revealed nothing -- it was how he responded to humiliation and crushing disappointment that would show his breeding and his true nature.
If someone cheats you out of some money, let it go. If someone cuts you off in traffic, swallow hard and let him. If your girl says she doesn't have feelings for you anymore, you may weep and you may be heartbroken, but you wish her well. (Extra points if you warmly shake the hand of her new beau.)
The KEY to being a gentleman when it comes to handling disappointment is to avoid public displays of anger. Crying -- at least a little -- is just fine, particularly if one mutters "I'm so terribly sorry" while one weeps. Raging -- "like a drunk Irishman", to use a bigoted old family phrase -- is the worst thing one could possibly do. (It's why my family laughed when journalists called Brett Kavanaugh a WASP -- his intemperate, if perhaps understandable display of rage before the Senate was the least WASPy thing ever.)
My fear and mistrust of anger above all other emotions was seeded early in my WASPy childhood. Anger was about being a "bad sport" or a "sore loser" or even - and this is a key additional component -- "someone who cared too much." WASPs were expected to work hard and play hard without being too invested in the results; defeat and rejection were better than being hyper-competitive. (To put it mildly, my family never cared that I was never close to a 4.0.)
In the WASP culture in which I incubated, mediocrity of accomplishment was no great vice. Mediocrity of character -- defined heavily by the absence of public grace -- was the greater sin.
When the attorneys for the college came to my mother's home to force my resignation, I was shaky and weepy and drugged. I also made sure to make them cookies, pour them coffee, and shake their hands with great cheer. I thanked them for coming so far.
"You've come to take my life away," I thought, "and you'll see just how well this condemned gentleman jumps the net."
Nothing defines a lady or a gentleman like loss. To vaguely paraphrase Vince Lombardi, losing isn't the most important thing -- it's the only thing that will reveal your true greatness and grace.
Consider the foregoing a memo to the Republican Party.