How to Win or Lose with Grace

How to Win or Lose with Grace


In the hyper-partisan atmosphere in this country, at least as intense as 20 years ago (Bush v Gore), or the last 40 years (Carter v Reagan), or possibly as far back as 1960 (Kennedy v Nixon), it may seem impossible now to win or lose with grace. Whichever side you root for, it seems winning will be cause for fierce joy, and losing will be cause for bitter despair and anger.

In games, grace is pretty easy for winners and losers, but in politics, especially this year, it will require taking the long view, and more than a touch of generosity.


We are lucky if, as children, we are taught to be good sports. If we are taught not to crow when we win, and rub it in, but instead display grace and generosity when coming out ahead, and not make an excessive show of joy, at least in the presence of the loser, we are showing grace. 

One of the most famous examples of graceful American sportsmanship is the story of when General Robert E. Lee, at Appomattox, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, surrendered to Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Army of the Potomac. The story goes that at the end of the surrender negotiations, General Lee offered his sword Grant, a traditional symbolic action, but Grant refused to accept it, saying “General, you have been a noble adversary, you keep your sword.” I spent a lot of time trying to track that story down, and find out the truth about what was supposedly said between the two, but have so far failed. It is as if the old romantic story has been erased. 

However, we have the transcripts of the conversation, and here’s what really happened: General Grant required only that Confederates surrender Confederate property. While the soldiers stacked and gave up about 27,000 rifles, Grant permitted them to retain their side arms-which includes swords– their horses and their baggage, so they could make it home quickly and safely, and plant crops when they got there. He also agreed to provide about 25,000 rations to the surrendering soldiers.   

Thus ended the Civil War or the War between the States. Passions had been sky-high at the beginning of the war—higher than they are now–but after 4 years of hardship and bloodshed, exhaustion had set in, and the romance of war had become laughable. 

Grant’s generosity was toward all the Confederates and their families. Popular opinion on both sides took that noble surrender story and converted it made it personal, and focused it upon General Lee, the most romantic figure of that conflict, to heighten the nobility of the exchange, and the ‘mano a mano’ of the meeting of the two men. Human nature being always and everywhere the same, the public, in 1865 was attracted to the celebrity Generals. 

But Grant’s generosity benefitted all the Confederates. It was April, and a little late to begin planting, so Grant helped the Confederate soldiers get back to their homes and grow food. That’s a good example, worth remembering, of the grace of the winner.  And note that the reality exceeded the myth. 

Winston Churchill, a winner of his war, wrote his history of WW II, and in each of the 5 volumes he stated what he called ‘The Moral of the Work,’ the work being winning WWII for the democracies.  And that Moral was: “In War: Resolution, In Defeat: Defiance, In Victory: Magnanimity, In Peace: Goodwill”. And it worked: Japan, Italy, and Germany are all strong democracies. 

A loser of a contest who is a graceful good sport, congratulates the winner and compliments them. 

The winner of a contest who is a graceful good sport, congratulates the loser, downplays their own accomplishment, and tries to make the other person feel better. 

The conclusion must be, that true grace requires that the opponents put the human relationship, above the winning and losing. The essence of grace is a form of emotional and sometimes practical generosity. 

Beyond Games

Games and contests of little importance are one thing. Sure, some of us fervently want our teams to do well.  Personally, I don’t care nearly as much now as when I was younger.  High School basketball was enormously, passionately important. College football became important at college, and professional baseball, basketball, and football, became important once I left the provinces and arrived in San Francisco. But it’s just not as important as before. For me, now, politics is the important contest.  And grace in that arena is very difficult to maintain. 

I think the difference is that sports and other games are not entwined with religion.  But for some in our society, affiliation with a sport or an activity, can take the place of conventional religion. 

We Unitarian Universalists have certain Principles. Important principles. For instance, we believe, most of us I think, that religious truth does not contradict truth from any other source. Truth is part of the interconnected web of all creation, and it has integrity, and is in harmony, and coheres, with, well, everything. There are no alternative truths, or alternative facts. As half our name—unitarian—implies, we believe it’s all One. 

For those of you new to UUism, the other half, Universalism, has long held that we are not condemned to eternal torment for acting according to the combination of gifts and curses we received in life. As the mid-late 20th C. Universalists said, “God is not a sadist.” Some observers, some of whom are Universalists, go further, and say, blasphemously, that if any of that damnation belief is true, then God deserves to burn in Hell. Strong stuff. 

It is almost universally understood that we should steer clear of politics and religion in mixed groups, like at Thanksgiving, coming to us later this month. The ‘rule’ is, just don’t go there. If we are forced to go there because someone insists, we will do well to maintain perspective and a sense of humor, and practice tolerance, and not get drawn in. It’s enough to say something like “I hear you, but I don’t see any facts that support those ideas. Or better, just smile lovingly. 

We can all afford to be generous to our opposing contestants in contests that don’t really matter. But political contests carry enormous consequences, and it will be hard to be generous if the coming elections are unfairly lost.   

Mother Jones – who has a monument down-state near Peoria – famously said, “pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”   

When we have contests upon which the health and safely and happiness of millions depend, we should – if we can – fight like hell for or against political activity that makes a difference, and if it makes a difference, our values and religion are involved, which provide us the power of devotion, and perseverance. 

We hope we can all be respectful of other people’s opinions, no matter how happy or unhappy we are with the election outcomes, but I confess I don’t see how I can accept gracefully or in any other way, attempts to cheat with our elections, by foreign or domestic operatives. I am worried about high-handedness by politicians, and disinformation campaigns, and most especially, violence.    

May God bless us, every one. Stay safe, and fight like hell for your vision of a better world, each in our own way, and as gracefully as possible.


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