March is about basketball babeeeeeee. Invitations are everywhere to wager on the NCAA tournament bracket, everyone you know is romanticizing about their alma mater, and millions of people are attaching themselves to a team — just to be in the conversation.
Recently my wife and I were invited to a basketball tournament. After navigating traffic and parking we got to the game, and found seats one row from the front, just about half court. We are competitive, but certainly not fanatic. We are known to talk trash to the fans of the opposing team; however, we could just as easily get energized by talking about how to plant the best tomato garden.
For our first time out in a while, we decided to keep our comments to ourselves and follow the lead of our friends. From all the yelling and hollering from both sides, you would have thought the reincarnation of Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry were holding court. All my wife and I saw, however, was a bunch of fifth graders trying to coordinate walking and dribbling. It seemed like we were in a different reality.
About five minutes into the second half, I saw a player take a hard fall, out of the corner of my eye. The referee called the foul, but for some of the parents it seemed that it was not enough.
The atmosphere was charged. You knew something was going to happen.
I looked at my wife. “When I move you move,” I said, echoing a rap song we both used to love.
“Just like that?” she smiled.
“Hellya,” I asserted.
A parent got up, screamed at the referee, and moved aggressively towards the court in the direction of the offending child. The parents supporting the offending child’s team moved to intervene. My friends were there on guard: like the backups to a bench-clearing baseball fight. The main entrance to the gym was blocked, so we couldn’t leave through the doors, and instead found a path up the bleachers. Ever so slowly, we moved up the bleachers. We each reached with a left foot to the bleacher above, shifted weight then brought the right foot up, and rebalanced. We repeated the movements until we reached the top of the bleachers.
As we sat at the top bleacher, we looked down: it was like a mob dance. Guys years past their prime were throwing punches. For every punch thrown they needed two steps to regain their balance. The weaves and wigs were swinging and swaying like pom poms. A wig would hit the floor now and again, but that didn’t get in the way of hitting somebody.
Since the parents weren’t wearing jerseys, I don’t know who won the fight. The police intervened and the referees canceled the remainder of the basketball game. In an all out effort to win, we all lost. We forgot about sportsmanship, parents failed to model disciplined behavior, and the seeds were planted to win at all costs for games that are controlled by others.
We live in a world of winning and losing. Everything we see, everything we touch, everything we hear, everything we are asked to participate in is about separating the winners from the losers. We have got so used to this as normal, all of us, that we forget to ask who created the rules of the game.
Living in a world of winning and losing starts out with our first interactions with the world. Even in kindergarten: there are games with prizes, teams are set against each other. It continues all the way through school, both inside the classroom and on the sports field. There are very few aspects of our lives developed outside of the construct of winning and losing: the only way you can get ahead, create a good life, have security, happiness and love is by winning.
In any game, someone has to define what winning is. It could be defined in terms of making a lot of money, gaining notoriety and fame. It could be framed in terms of power over others, the kind of house you live in, or the car you drive, or, more recently, how many followers you have on social media.
Winning is rarely, if ever, defined in terms of peace or contentment or a loving connection with others.
Unless we have a connection to our own innate values, we have no reference point for what would be a truly meaningful life, lived on our own terms. That vacuum leaves things open for someone else to define for you what winning is.
Hard baked into the idea of winning is the notion that if you’re not a winner, then you are a loser. It’s a binary game: if there’s no winning, there must be losing. The notion of not losing becomes an even more powerful incentive than trying to win because it’s associated with a threat, with being dominated, with losing power, and even — in the case of war — with death. We want to win at all costs because we don’t want to lose, and we don’t want to lose because we might die.
We forget that whichever group is currently in control often got there because of a war or an invasion. War is the ultimate win/lose scenario. The groups who have most control in the world today have frequently been obsessed — in the past — with invading other countries through war. In such a scenario someone has to win and someone has to lose. Then, the group who won not only gets to control the resources, but they also get to control the narrative about what happened, who was right and who was wrong, and they then get to control the rules of the game in which everyone will play moving forward.
A peasant working in the fields did not choose to wage a war, no one asked his opinion. It was the King who decided to go to war, and then everyone else was obliged to go along, often under threat of imprisonment or death. The farmer just wanted his crops to grow and the rains to come. He might have had no grievance whatsoever with the population of the group being invaded.
The dominating group will do everything to enroll you in this win/lose scenario, requiring you by law to kill other people. Take Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. The majority of Russians had absolutely no problem with Ukrainians prior to this decision. In fact, many people had family members on the other side of the border. It’s a very similar culture, a similar language, similar religion. Innocent people on both sides of the border who had no problem with those on the other side got enrolled in a fictitious narrative of conflict: winning or losing. The same is true in Northern and Southern Ireland, in North and South Korea. It was true for those living in what is now Pakistan and India prior to 1947, and it was true about Caucasuians and Jews in Germany before the 1930s.
Frequently, we have to be bribed to disrupt our lives enough to participate full time in a win/lose scenario. American football players and other celebrity athletes pay a huge price for participating in the commercialized win/lose game. There is a huge cost to their health, to their family, and friendships. Playing frequently involves severe concussion and broken bones.
It is often assumed that the domination of a controlling group is about one particular ethnicity. But that is not true. It is about the very nature of power imbalance that runs through all of our history. When you look at books like Sapiens by Yoval Noah Harari, we realize there have always been controlling groups, dominating through violence and then defining the rules of the game for everyone. For the last 350 years this has been white people from Europe, and now we like to revise history and think that the white man has always been dominant, but that is not true. Prior to slavery there were competing groups in Africa where chieftains did exactly the same thing to other tribes that white people later did to Africans. It is not a particular group of people, or a race, which causes the win/lose scenario, it’s a collective mindset in which we have all participated… at enormous cost.
In our modern culture, win/lose games have been highly commercialized. Teams have owners: they are controlled by the wealthy. There is an organized system to keep us all preoccupied with the tension of winning and losing. Organized sports are broadcast, at huge expense, to everywhere where alcohol is served. Alcohol is well known to exacerbate feelings of aggression, whipping up the polarity of the win/lose scenario.
This all runs on the fact that each of us loves to observe win/lose scenarios. We are not particularly interested in just watching people living their lives. No one goes to watch basketball unless the score is kept; no one is interested to watch people bouncing a ball around the court, having fun together. Equally there’s not much of an audience for watching people working out in a gym. The only sports people like to observe are the ones where there is a tension of who will win and who will lose.
Some people like to think that we are indoctrinated into a win/lose mentality. It is clear to me that it’s connected to our biology: to adrenaline and cortisol in the body, and to dopamine in the brain. But it’s this weakness towards competition and separation in the human psyche which is exacerbated through commercial interests and used by controlling groups to keep us at war with each other.
Every now and then we relax this tendency: taking a walk with friends, laying on the beach, enjoying food. Then we remember what it’s like to return to a sense of ease, and play, and connection, where it’s not you against me vying to become the winner, but you and me in a playful connection. Then we return to a natural sense of respect, and curiosity about our shared humanity.
I’ve discovered that the way to discover something more nourishing than winning and losing is to find a way to reconnect to your own values, why you are alive. This is sometimes called “sovereignty.” It means to reconnect with what is actually important to you. Then you can choose a life of balance, and connection, and play, and ease which comes from within yourself instead of a game sold to you by people with power.