by Michael Maciel
Second place is just the first loser. – NASCAR adage
Yeah, competition is tricky that way, isn’t it. Unless you stake everything, and I mean everything on winning, you’re likely to lose. Second place is not an option. That’s part of what makes racing such an intense event.
Having raced in my youth, I have often contemplated the fear and excitement of ski racing. It can be simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. It’s like an initiation or, more correctly speaking, a rite of passage. It tested my courage to the absolute limit. Recently, I watched a horrific fatal accident in an online video where a ski racer crashed into a safety net alongside a downhill course at what looked like 80 to 90 mph. The net tore his body in the most grotesque way and he bled to death where he lay. It affected me in ways that I didn’t know I was capable of being affected. It was one of those things you cannot unsee and I felt something change in me at a fundamental level.
Immediately after I watched the video of this horrible accident, I found myself in a peculiar state of mind. It was, you might say, the complete opposite of sympathy. It was a coping mechanism, and I imagined it might be similar to what soldiers in combat must feel at times, although I don’t know that for sure because I’ve never been in that situation. The feeling I had was not merely one of steeling myself against the horror of what had happened to this man. It was worse than that. I found myself despising him. He had not only failed, he had failed in a way that was totally unacceptable. And for that, I had to turn my back on his pain and his demise.
Of course, what I was really rejecting was my own fear. I was using his failure as an object of my contempt so that it would not undermine the fragile buoyancy of my carefully cultivated courage. It shocked me to feel this way, but in the moment, it felt like the most powerful thing I could do. To do otherwise would defeat me, both in the sense of everything I had accomplished in the past and everything I would attempt to do in the future. I couldn’t let my confidence be undermined by his misfortune. I had to reject him utterly.
There has been a lot of talk lately about zero-sum games and how destructive they can be. And in most social situations, that’s true. Finding solutions to human problems in ways that let everyone prosper are far better than thinking that if one party is to win, the other party has to lose. That has caused more trouble on this planet than any other concept. But, can you not think of a situation where absolute victory is the only option? Are claims made upon us by other people or other countries always legitimate? Must we always take their desires into consideration before we act? Sometimes, we have to say no, and we have to say it irrevocably. Whether we say it to ourselves when we want to do something selfish that we know will hurt others or we say it to someone who wants to harm us for no good reason other than they just simply want to, the act of our saying no has to be solid. We have to draw a line and the line has to hold. We have to hold it. Sometimes, there is no retreat. When our back is up against a wall, our will to survive must be unconflicted. Learning how to do this is what sports are all about. They test our mettle in ways that don’t require us to fight for our lives but rather give us ways to practice our resolve in the safety of a controlled environment.
The kinds of extreme sports like NASCAR and ski racing are surrogates for these kinds of life-and-death decisions. They test our courage, and they have potentially deadly consequences for failure that are every bit as real as those encountered in violent confrontations. Some may argue against the usefulness of such contests or even the validity of testing oneself in ways that seem so irresponsible. But the attempt to become courageous is meaningless unless the risks involved are real. And the benefits that accrue to one’s character as a result of forthrightly facing those risks cannot be overstated. They elevate you to new heights of self-awareness and confidence. They change your life.
So I can see why NASCAR drivers find second place to be despicable—”the first loser.” It’s almost a necessary state of mind to have in order to win. It’s because, I think, that we need something to run away from while we are running towards our goals, something so frightening that we will avoid it at all costs. We need a hell to push us from behind as much as we need to be drawn forwards by our goals. Because if we don’t have that, any setback, especially a serious one like the gruesome death of a fellow competitor or even of one’s comrade-in-arms on the field of battle, will likely dissuade us too easily from the victory we seek. Failure has to be made so hateful that we will fiercely strive to avoid it.
This sentiment, if carried to its extreme, would be the death of compassion, that’s for sure. It would be the ugly cruelty of Sparta, not the beautiful strength of Athens. But in the intensity of the moment, especially when you’re “next up,” ruthlessness becomes your only salvation. You have to push away any shred of possibility of failure. And just pushing it away isn’t enough, because it might spring back repeatedly until it eventually destroys your courage and puts you down. Rather, you have to kill it outright and kill it so thoroughly that it will never raise its demonic head again. You kill it and you bury it in an unmarked grave.
Some people will find this objectionable. Even the idea of winning goes against their sense of fairness and cooperation. They distrust competition in all of its forms and think that it might even be the source of all evil. But life is neither fair nor cooperative. It is brutal and unforgiving. Nature itself seems hellbent on our destruction. Eventually, it defeats us all, usually in painful, messy ways. As French philosopher Jacques Derrida said when he was dying of cancer, “This is all going to end—and very badly.”
It’s because of this existential predicament we find ourselves in that we must value strength and resilience over safety and comfort. It’s not that we can’t have those things, but we must never sacrifice the careful cultivation of courage to the fantasy of an idyllic life where peace and love have somehow magically replaced all forms of suffering. That’s simply not going to happen. In a billion years, maybe, but not anytime soon.
And it’s not only war and extreme sports that provide us with the hard choices that can strengthen our character. It’s every moral choice that we have to make. It’s every moment that we are confronted with the choice of either doing the right thing or doing what’s expedient, to retreat into the tranquilized obviousness of what we already know or to venture courageously into the unknown and risk everything for the opportunity to know a greater truth. It’s in these small moments that we grow into the person we can be. It’s not to the cheers of an adoring crowd at the finish line that we make our greatest strides towards our yet-to-be-realized potential but in our most private decisions, the ones we make when no one is watching.