Winning is For Losers

My wife and I have been trying to sell our house for the last 5 months. Actually, my wife and I have sold our house 3 times in the last 5 months, and each time, something untoward knocked the deal off the rails at the last minute. The first buyer had botched surgery that incapacitated him, the second had some kind of PTSD episode and refused to answer anyone’s phone calls, the third was torpedoed by an unhappy home inspector who had no idea how to properly assess an old house, and then stood on our porch and tried to scare the buyers into buying a monthly warranty, yearly warranty, and a bunch of other upsell crap—this after the house had received excellent inspections from 2 more experienced inspectors as part of the previous sales. So, if I were I believer in signs, I would say something is trying to keep us from moving. But I’m not.

Still, we are left with the lingering feeling that somehow we failed, or that there is something wrong with our house. To the latter point, I should say that we really love our house, didn’t want to leave it, just wanted to go somewhere different, closer to the community we usually drive 40 minutes to visit and socialize and so forth. And, as I mentioned, it passed 2 inspections in which the inspectors thanked us for getting to spend the afternoon is such a cool old house (I heard the third inspector tell his assistant “damn, this shitty house, then another shitty house right after this, god, this job, can’t wait for the weekend so I can stop thinking about this shit.” Maybe time to find a different path, bub).

So, perhaps we failed. But we didn’t, we sold it three times, did all the things one is supposed to do staging it, cleaning the hell out of everything; we did it right, and again, sold it three times, in a soft market. 40 miles south, the house would have sold in 36 hours, with multiple offers.

And, yet—here we are, with the outcome we wanted to happen not happening. It is hard to think of that as anything other than failure, which leads me to consider how much our culture depends on the simple paradigm of winning or losing, success or failure. If you want a promotion at work, and someone else gets it, you have failed, and they have succeeded, goes the logic, and it is hard to see it otherwise. And most people will search for someone to blame, themselves or others, as a way to deal with what has happened, or salve themselves with platitudes about working harder next time and trusting that the process is meritorious. The process is not meritorious, though, and the older I get, the more I realize that much, maybe most, of success in any human endeavor is due primarily to luck. In a way, the whole idea of life as a game that involves winning and losing, success and failure, is a means to rationalize how entirely arbitrary our existence is, the fact that no matter how in control we think we are, we are really just mites being tossed around in a hurricane.

This, too, probably sounds like a rationalization, like my own attempt at excusing our failure at getting what we wanted. Think, though, of all the industries and institutions devoted to making people feel better about getting bashed around by events out of their control, about telling them it isn’t their fault, or selling them that products that will make sure it turns out better next time, or not hurt so badly just now. I’m hard pressed to think of an industry or institution that doesn’t have something to do with providing this kind of succor. I think Buddhism gets closest to acknowledging the arbitrary nature of existence, even while providing tools to deal with such a reality.

At the heart of Buddhism is the doctrine of detachment, of freedom from desire for the things of a fleeting, impermanent world. This does not mean a person should not seek meaningful experiences, love, things that bring one satisfaction and joy, but that needing those things only brings disappointment. In other words, a person should seek the meaningful and the good while acknowledging that getting these things or not getting them are fundamentally the same. I like to play games, but I really don’t care if I win or lose, yet I always try to win because that is how one plays a game, and out of respect to other players. If I win, I feel nothing, if I lose, I feel nothing, what is important is joy while playing, and engagement with others, which helps give my life meaning. And, if I can’t find anyone to play, I also feel nothing, because I don’t desire joy and meaning, I just try to steer my life toward these things. That is the theory as I understand it, anyway.

Empty handed I entered the world.

Barefoot I leave it.

My coming, my going —

Two simple happenings

That got entangled.

– Kozan

In such a perspective, failure and success are simply things that lead to other things, events that open up new paths, close off others, and are not worth clinging to, because there is no satisfaction in winning or losing, only more craving. Again, this might seem like to a rationalization for accepting failure to someone stuck in the winning or losing paradigm, but I think it requires much more strength, and bravery, to accept that our ability to exert control over the world is an illusion. Games and competitions are simply ludic spaces where we can pretend otherwise, which is why they are important, but as a release, not as a model on which to base a healthy society.

So, will we keep trying to sell our house? Take it off the market and relist it later? Decide we love it enough to stay? I have no idea, and whatever path we choose, it will just be another path, full of strange and unexpected and wonderful and painful experiences. For now, we are going to do what we do best: celebrate, give thanks for the experience and our existence and the potential futures spread before us and, yes, for our failure, because truly, winning is for losers.