Called To Be a Loser

Here’s the latest from the Holland Sentinel‘s community columnist:

Several years ago I was invited to give the baccalaureate address at the Presbyterian-related school, Hanover College, in southern Indiana.

As far as I knew, the school’s main claim to fame, other than having me as a speaker, was having Woody Harrelson as a student. He received his degree in English and theatre in 1983, more than 20 years before I set foot on campus.

I titled my address “Called To Be a Loser” and sent that information, along with a publicity photo, to the college president a few weeks before graduation weekend. Within a few days, the president telephoned with concern in his voice, though I couldn’t quite figure out why. Finally, he said, “That’s quite a title you chose for your address.”

“Yes, it is,” I agreed, not offering anything further about what I planned to say.

“Well,” he said, hesitantly, as if unsure how to continue the conversation, “we’ll be looking forward to what you have to say.” The tone of his goodbye suggested that I should behave myself—or this might be my last invitation.

The baccalaureate service was a beautiful one, I thought, and no one seemed outraged with what I said. I tried my best to be humorous. And brief. I even tried speaking over the heads of the graduates to the proud families and faculty members who were in attendance.

But my message, I thought, was blunt. And to the point. The “loser” in the title of my address was Jesus who, according to the Bible, lost everything we might value, but gained everything of eternal value. “Give yourselves away through lives of service,” I told the graduates, “tell the truth, and live with compassion, and you will have all the meaning and purpose in life you can handle. That’s your vocation.”

Then I added, as a final sentence: “Now all you need is a job.”

I still think what I said is true, and I would say it again, using most of the same words and the same title. I have changed my mind about a lot of things over the years, but not about this.

Losing is what we are called to do with our lives, if only losing were so easy.

I was not raised to be a loser. I was raised in the church, with long years in Sunday school and twice-on-Sunday worship services. I don’t remember any calls to be a loser, not one.

My parents, likewise, expected me to “make something” of myself, and though they never said what that looked like, I knew that second best was never going to be good enough. I came home from college one day and proudly announced that I had been appointed associate editor of the college newspaper for the coming year. Their response, without hesitation, was, “Why not editor?”

As a result, I haven’t lost many times in my life, but whenever I did, I felt a crushing disappointment. I had been put on this earth, I was taught, to come out on top.

A few weeks ago, Rob Davidson, the Democratic candidate for the local congressional seat, wrote movingly in this space about “losing.” After months of hard work, a substantial investment of his own money, and considerable time away from his family, he lost the election to the Republican candidate. The result wasn’t close. There was no need for a recount.

I was touched by his words and wrote to tell him so. Dr. Davidson wasn’t raised in the same family or church I was, but his background is similar enough to mine. Winning is expected, and when you don’t win, the losses are especially difficult.

What I wrote to Dr. Davidson may be helpful to other people who struggle with losing. I told him that I admired his gracious spirit and his humility in defeat. I was also glad, I told him, that he kept his words about his Republican opponent to a minimum. I hope we are past the campaign rhetoric.

More important, I wrote, I believe he said during the campaign what he believed to be true. He was honest about his views. He didn’t hedge or dissemble or find cover in clichés. Instead, he was unusually blunt and simply said what he believes, which is commendable because, as we learned, most people in the district disagree with his beliefs. But—and this is no small thing—he said it anyway, which requires a fair amount of courage, more than is found in most politicians. And of course speaking with honesty and courage requires a willingness to lose.

After all these years, I have come to see that offering ourselves in service and speaking the truth and living with a compassionate spirit is what we are called to do with our lives. It’s the best we can do, the best any of us can do. It’s the thing we can be most proud of when we come to the end of our lives.

Winning isn’t everything. Losing with integrity can be so much better.

Photo: Mountain hiking in Switzerland. Seems like a long time ago.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

6 Responses to Called To Be a Loser

  1. Andrew Gifford December 27, 2018 at 10:16 am #

    Doug, as a ponder the sharing of the Word this week waiting for my truck to be repaired, I have just completed your post. I think you may have a shout out this week as I preach on the New Year and living a better life. Especially when I tell them the gift of being a loser. Maybe I should wait though until the college student Seth returns to class?

    Andy Gifford

    • Doug December 27, 2018 at 9:13 pm #

      So glad you’re back to the work you’ve been called to do! Your people won’t know who in the world I am. But I’d love to meet them.

  2. Tom Blair December 27, 2018 at 9:08 pm #

    Honestly, I would use a different title ( What Honesty Means, for ex.) but yours is better.
    In other words, your title is a winner.

    • Doug December 27, 2018 at 9:15 pm #


  3. mike house December 29, 2018 at 6:33 pm #

    Merry Christmas to you and your family – that post was quite a gift. Thx for that. Made it mandatory reading for the Houses/Friedmans – under penalty of not having a place at our pre-NYE dinner tonight. I asked them what they liked better – the prime rib or your post. No contest – giving ourselves away wins.


    • Doug December 29, 2018 at 7:36 pm #

      You’re a good man, Mike House. I miss you and your family. Please hug each one of them for me.