In Praise of Defeat

In Ancient Greek boxing, if a match was a draw the athletes could choose to do what is called a Klimax in order to determine a clear winner. One boxer would deliver a punch to the other while undefended, back and forth, until one of them dropped.

Yesterday as I was standing at the side of the road in the cold and the dark after hitting a deer with my car I was thinking that I felt like one of those ancient boxers—taking blow after blow after blow to the face, to the gut, to the heart…

At what point will I collapse? At what point do I admit defeat?

The past week and a half has been especially difficult and the car accident felt like another defeat in a string of defeats, both large and small. From the Latin de and facio, defeat literally means “to unmake” or “undo” something. Is it really a bad thing to admit defeat in some cases? Can we learn something from admitting defeat?

Moroccan poet and author Abdellatif Laabi, who was imprisoned and tortured by his government because of his writings, composes a poem in the midst of his suffering entitled “In Praise of Defeat.” The content of the poem and the striking title have been on my mind all week. Laabi acknowledges the balance in the universe—we can’t truly enjoy or appreciate victory if we haven’t first experienced defeat:

In this world so disparaged
you have everything
The sun, the moon
cows, pigs
the sea, the soil
love, hate
joy, sadness
peace, war
highs and lows
What more could you ask?

Defeat reduces a situation, a relationship, a circumstance, a life to a void, a nothingness. As I was standing in the dark on the side of that road with my daughter and my puppy in the car, scared for all of us, my mind started slipping toward a sadness—a kind of longing even—for my old life. I never had to take care of issues like this, they were taken care of for me. And I certainly never had to deal with stressful situations like this alone.

But I had to quickly adjust my mindset—and accept defeat. That previous life no longer exists for me. I had to accept its defeat. And if I didn’t I would be stuck, and sad, and consumed by grief indefinitely. How to take care of Claire and Phoebe, who to call for help now, how to get the car fixed—these are my tasks now.

I keep thinking about what is next for me. My life feels so completely different, and although fate has dealt me several unexpected and painful blows I am still standing. And I’m convinced that if I had never admitted defeat then I couldn’t begin to think, to have hope, for something different. Paul Valery writes about emotions in his Notebooks and his ideas about pain and suffering especially resonated with me after experiencing the defeats I mentioned this past week. “The simplest characteristic of pain is its capacity to force the attention, to distract, to deny freedom,” Valery writes.” An important result of embracing my defeat is gaining my freedom back—my freedom to decide what comes next for me.

“Just keep rolling with the punches,” he said.

He’s absolutely right.


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15 responses to “In Praise of Defeat

  1. Michael Piscal

    Darn good stuff.


  2. Mike

    We draw on the metaphors available, and defeat/victory are binary terms. Do you feel, or is there any evidence, that Valery was asking us to appreciate something beyond binary oppositions? I ask as in Stoic, as well as Epicurean writings, there is a form of acceptance (perhaps not defeat in the usual sense). Taoist texts also suggest how we can take strength in cultivating a form of ‘radical acceptance’ where one “goes with the flow.” In a way, these very different schools of thought all invoke the possibility of side-stepping our usual this/that form of description, and construction.
    You feel overwhelmed – who wouldn’t? You are facing really demanding events. I suppose I’m cautioning you to be careful with metaphors of defeat (apologies if this seems crass). Personally, military metaphors don’t give me long-haul courage; very useful for the occasional ‘sorty’ (see what I did there), but perhaps less flexible, perhaps? When we feel we can’t cope, it is okay to say, it is okay to ask for help, it is okay to collapse for a day. That’s not defeat, I feel.
    Rolling with the punches in boxing ( I used to box) is a way of reducing the strength of any that get through. That metaphor is a fighting one, but it is also one for the counter punchers .. not the aggressors.
    Of course, my comments apply to me, are born of my experience, so, again, apologies if they are less than sensitive. Best wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think you quite understand my metaphor with the boxing. I wasn’t talking about the usual bouts that we see today. I was specifically referring to the klimax: a man having to stand there, without defending himself from blow after blow. I feel like one of those me. How many blows can I take before I fall down? That’s the question I was getting at. A very personal question that everyone will answer in a different way.

      Valery had a serious distaste for all emotions. He was talking himself out of feeling different types of emotions. Here he was giving himself a specific reason why he should work through pain. I really identified with his reasoning and it has helped me work through a very difficult and painful experience.

      I am looking at defeat, as I stated, through the Latin origin of the word. Something that’s unmade. Once again, a very personal interpretation of that word.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. What an awful week you’ve had Melissa – but part of the human condition is the yin and yang, the good and the bad, and we *do* keep fighting on, whatever happens. I always think a day at a time is the way to edge forward, until things are calmer and clearer. Take care of yourselves. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks for sharing your insight into what happened (so sorry that it did happen!). I know I will remember your words sometime when life deals its unexpected punches, just as you found words of truth in these poets. St Paul said something similar to the Corinthians: “for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). When emptied of our own strength, we sometimes discover a new source of strength rushing in. Even so, I earnestly hope you don’t have any more new punches to roll with! Fond wishes~lucy

    Liked by 1 person

  5. There will be days like this, and every now and again the temptation to surrender will overwhelm you. It’s not failure when it happens, it’s the reality of losing someone precious. Let it happen, and then pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and set out again.
    My other counsel is this, don’t be afraid of nostalgia for your old life but be aware of its tricks: when you write that you ‘never had to deal with issues like this’, you’re probably idealising your own experience a bit. The shoulder we leant on was never *always* there. Sometimes he was away from home working or off pursuing a hobby. Sometimes he was there but not emotionally available for some reason. Sometimes his phone was out of range or battery! Probably what enabled you to cope at those times and to deal with whatever it was, was the knowledge that if things got worse you could eventually call him back from wherever he was. It was that strength coming from your love for each other that got you through it, not his actual presence. And you still have that.
    Have you considered telling him about it? Had he been away at some conference in a different time zone, you probably would have emailed him about it, and made a story of it. We know from research that making a narrative out of a traumatic event can be healing, and is strongly protective against flashbacks. Buy yourself a beautiful journal, and sit out on your lovely deck or curled up in bed and write letters to him, no holds barred.
    (if that seems weird, well, I still talk to my father every day, and he died in 2015.)
    Fond wishes to you from across the miles, Lisa

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Lisa. I was thinking I never had to deal with car issues or the mechanic before. But I met the mechanic for the first time this week. So always learning something new. I press on.


  6. Ugh, mechanics! I soon learned that I needed to change mine, and the car as well. When we had car trouble The Ex would always engage in the kind of ‘manly’ conversation that made the mechanic realise that he couldn’t con us with unnecessary work. That did not apply when I went there and said, I don’t know what’s wrong with it, it’s making a funny noise.’
    Unfortunately I had a Peugeot, a beautiful car but there was only one local mechanic who serviced them. And every time I went there it cost a fortune and I had no way of knowing whether I was being conned or not, though the mounting bills suggested that I was. The solution was to buy a very boring, very common car that offered lots of options from reputable dealers…
    I still miss that Peugeot!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Craig

    You’ve had so much happen to you Melissa. I think of the Beckett phrase “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

    Liked by 2 people

  8. John Galbraith Simmons

    There’s much in Abdellatif Laabi’s poetry to admire for its grace, elegance, and finely tempered anger in the teeth of coarse and intemperate pain and personal loss. It must speak to you right now and it shall, to the rest of us, if not now, eventually .


  9. Dear Melissa, I learn a great deal from you and, I dunno, but, you write in a very moving way that creates an affinity and familiarity between writer and reader. You are an inspiration, you profoundly and truly are. Your ability to continue with living (caring and solution finding) and decision to post so candidly about the adversity you face is truly valued.

    — De Profundis

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Vic Gallerano

    The Thing Is

    to love life, to love it even
    when you have no stomach for it


    Liked by 1 person

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