The following is an entry from my CiViL Groups Log on April 21, 2004. All names have been changed to protect privacy.
The Losing Team
I asked the boys to tell about a time they had been on a team that lost. That generated lots of stories, most of them told at the same time. It was a challenge to listen to each one and focus the conversation with questions. “How did that feel?” “What did you do about it?”
Michael cultivated apathy. Their freshman basketball team lost eight games in a row, but from game one, he insisted that he didn’t care. Mark is on the track team, but as a freshman running against upper classmen, he always loses. To him it’s mostly just embarrassing. Abdul plays all the major sports. He was on the losing basketball team, and he’s on the winning baseball team. Anger is his most common response to losing. Leon played basketball too. He talked about how some people cried when their team lost a playoff game. He felt disappointed.
Boys and Feelings
These boys, like so many others, have a hard time identifying their feelings, especially the ones beneath the hard shells of anger and apathy. Like most people, when they finally understand what I’m asking for – what no one else seems to ask for, their feelings – they can tell me about them. It is powerful for them just to have that opportunity.
Train harder Anger
Don’t care Disappointed
Figure out why apathy
Quit or consider it embarrassment
According to the boys, losing leads to feelings of disappointment, shame, embarrassment, and other stresses. But some of hose feelings are so painful that the boys don’t really feel them for long. Instead, they kick out of them as quickly as we can into anger or apathy. They’re not unusual. Few people want to keep feeling the ache of disappointment, the panic of embarrassment or the laceration of shame. For that matter, no one really wants to keep feeling any of the “vulnerable feelings” for long. Loneliness, sadness, regret, abandonment, and a whole lot of other feelings are tough to experience, so if we can avoid feeling them, we do. Who wouldn’t?
Anger & Apathy
The most common way to stop an unwanted feeling is to translate it into something else. A lot of people use anger or apathy. I summarized that on the board as well:
WE CHOOSE: ANGER > SENSE OF POWER OR WE GRIEVE OUR LOSS
APATHY > SENSE OF RELIEF
I asked them what people do when they grieve the loss of a loved one. They started to describe funeral grief. Being freshmen boys, they were particularly descriptive of the funeral stories in which the mourners displayed their grief in the extreme. They laughed about all the moaning, crying, dancing, wallowing, screaming, blaming, arguing, and even fighting they had seen at funerals. But they all agreed that most people allow that expression of loss is allowed and even encouraged at a funeral. Marquez commented that people who have lost a loved one grieve their loss. And we use the same word “loss” to describe what we experience at the end of an unsuccessful basketball game. Since they are both loss, it makes logical sense to grieve one, if we grieve the other.
Boys in our society are taught not to grieve. Instead, they are taught to use anger for motivation to change because it is empowering to do so. They are also taught not to care because doing so gives them relief, and it keeps them from troubling others with their feelings – a behavior that many boys believe makes them appear weak or girlish. Grief is messy, and most adults don’t want to get involved in it. They may not know how to grieve their own losses, let alone teach their children how grieve. Since boys are supposed to be tough and emotionless, they are the last in line for the how-to-grieve lessons, already in short supply. By default, boys become non-grievers.
The Mountain of Loss
Here’s what non-grievers miss. Loss is like a mountain that seems impossible to get over. Grief is the only tunnel through the mountain of loss, the only way to get to the other side. “Forgetting” about losses doesn’t really work. It simply takes them out of your conscious mind. It doesn’t resolve them. Getting angry feels powerful, but by itself, anger doesn’t resolve loss either. The only way to resolve loss is to actually feel the loss. To do that can be frightening because feelings of loss don’t come with a lot of control. In fact loss almost always feels out of control. There ‘s rarely any light shining through from the other end, despite what well-meaning people may say. We enter the tunnel on faith that it will lead somewhere good. We risk criticism and misunderstanding, if we go there, so a lot of people don’t. But it’s still the only way past the mountain of loss.
On the other side of the mountain, grievers find comfort, joy, hope, help victory, learning, and renewed determination. People who don’t grieve, miss out on all of that. They take the path of non-feeling. It leads to displaced anger, rage, giving up, pressure to try harder, and, ultimately to hopelessness. I asked the boys what good can possibly come from feeling and grieving a loss, and I wrote their answers on the board:
WHEN WE GRIEVE OUR LOSS > LEARNING – I can change.
> DETERMINATION – I can work.
> JOY – I can’t be destroyed.
> HOPE – I’ll be ok.
> VICTORY – I made it through!
> HELP – People love me.
When someone dies, we grieve, but we don’t tend to grieve other losses. Instead we get angry or apathetic. This robs us of the joy that comes from grieving.
Through the Tunnel
So how does this apply to these boys on the basketball court or the baseball field? It doesn’t mean they should all cry like babies when they miss a shot or strike out. But it would make sense for them to pay attention to the sense of loss that will come from time to time. If it’s going to be there anyway, they might as well deal with it. And the best way to deal with it is to follow the loss, through the tunnel of grief to the joy, learning, and hope on the other side.
Healthy people learn to grieve all the way through loss to joy. That’s what makes them resilient. They have felt sorrow and the joy that comes with it. Instead of trying to escape their losses, they face them, walking into that dark tunnel with courage and faith that, eventually, they come out the other side. This is by far the hardest path to take, but it is the only one that leads past loss to joy. Men of courage walk this way and become great.