PUMPING IRONY: In Praise of the Sore Loser

Everybody loves a good loser, right? Not so much.

illustration U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee
U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee: A good loser makes nobody happy.

I was eating my breakfast and reading the paper on Saturday morning, when I received the following text message: “How’s your ego this morning.”

It was from my tennis buddy, The Baseline Machine, who was clearly feeling her oats in advance of our 11:30 match. I sought to dampen her enthusiasm. “What ego?” I replied.

“Might want to work on finding it before the match,” she texted. “It’ll be hard for me to crush it if it isn’t there.”

How do you deal with life’s basic challenges? When it comes from someone like TBM, I can’t help myself. I channel my best G.W. Bush: “Bring it on,” I texted.

“Now you’re talking.”

I would argue that life is better when you challenge the odds, when you push yourself to achieve goals beyond what might seem reasonable to a rational person. You might not succeed. In fact, you probably won’t succeed. But the very fact that you stated your intention to beat the odds will impress the victors.

I met TBM at the appointed hour and promptly lost the first four games of the set. I think I might have won one point. She was on her game. I was a 62-year-old tennis bum wandering around the court without a purpose.  Inside of a half hour she’d taken the first set 6–1.

I don’t want to make too much of a tennis match, but the whole thing made me recall General Robert E. Lee at the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in 1865.

As General U.S. Grant, the victor, noted:

“What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing over the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered much for a cause.”

I had the sense that I had disappointed TBM with my woeful play. She had won, but there was no rejoicing. I was losing gracefully — no excuses — but what fun is that?

She took the first game of the second set, as well, but then I rallied, winning three straight. I may be a gracious loser, but when the score turns in my favor I like to rub it in. (Does that make me a bad person?) My trash talk, once vindicated by superior play, escalates to a point that could be called annoying. TBM, however, never seems to mind. It just nudges her to ramp up her game. Which she did, breaking my serve to win game five before our time on the court expired.

Losing gracefully is probably the right thing to do in most cases. I don’t know. I suppose it has something to do with how much you’ve invested in the outcome. That first set on Saturday felt like Lee surrendering to Grant — noble but unsatisfying for all involved. The second set was something else again: two adversaries trading their best shots.

Afterward, as we were gathering up our gear, I mentioned to TBM that she might want to work on her cardio a little, that I probably wore her out with my superior endurance. I know a good personal trainer. . . . She whacked me a good one on the arm.

I love a sore loser.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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