What Makes A Loser – a Nonsocietal Perspective

It was a long time ago (well, at least in the scale of time that I have lived through) that someone told me that I am a total loser. I was not happy at being told that, and retorted that there may have been times when I have found myself to be totally lost, but that I wouldn’t ever consider myself a total loser. That thought was lost somewhere in the depths of my memory, but surfaced again when I was recently asked by a dejected person whether he should consider himself a loser. I was surprised (as well as pleased) to see that I still hold on to what I instinctively felt years ago. However, it also triggered a thought process in me on what really makes one a loser.

If winning makes a winner, losing should also make a loser, should it not? But as long as hope and optimism are alive in us, we tend to think of our losses and failures as temporary, and look forward to a victory which will eventually make us a winner, thus rejecting the idea that a loss has made us a loser.  While this is very reassuring, how valid is this argument? How is a loss any more temporary than a win, and what makes us think that a victory is permanent? No athlete who has bagged the most coveted trophies has been able to maintain that superiority forever – their winning streak would end sooner or later as they are past their prime, or when more capable challengers appear. But few would tag them as losers, and this throws some light on our criteria for labeling people as winners and losers.

If a person were to win at least once in life, he is often considered a winner. As a corollary, losers are those who do not ever win in their lives. Since an entire lifetime is too long a period to wait before judging people, the “loser” tag is also applied to those who are considered incapable of ever being a winner. With this new definition, it appears that the optimist’s contention that he would one day be a winner in spite of his present losses seems justified. After all, it is impossible for anybody to live for a few years and never be successful in anything at all. But, again, I find it hard to believe that success at “anything” is sufficient to redeem a lifetime of failures.A person terms himself or another as a success or failure based on the latter’s performance at what the former thinks is important. Those who attach importance to money equate wealth to success. Those who crave for recognition and fame measure success by renown. Those who seek power think that to wield and use power is a sign of success. There are still others who consider success as the ability to attract and control women. Most of these indices are competitive, and success or failure depends on the relative performance of others. Some other parameters, like academic performance, while having little intrinsic value, are used as indicators of future success in other endeavors. For example, the better a student performs in school, the more likely he is to get admission in a good college, thus improving his chances of landing a well paying job, which is conducive to making more money, which constitutes success for many. Money in turn is considered by some to be useful in increasing one’s influence in society, while some others think of power as a shortcut to making money. For some, money and power are both means of attracting women.From an evolutionary perspective, this does make sense. Just as it is customary to align the goals of all units of an organization to the goals of the organization itself, human societies still judge the success of an individual based on how it aids the success of the species. The success of a species is in its continuation, and thus the success of an individual is his ability to live on for a longer time and to pass on his genes. Money, power, fame, popularity with women, all contribute to determining a person’s success in this endeavor.In a true sense, however, how important is it for an individual to perpetuate his bloodline? What does it matter to him if genes derived from his are still around, say, a hundred years after his death? Should he even care? While natural selection can possibly have chosen more of those who care, humans have grown beyond a point where this base instinct can control their actions and aspirations. It should be possible for humans of today to think and find for themselves what they really want, rather than follow the dictates of an evolutionarily acquired ambition. Once they do, they can use this as a criteria for measuring success.

Fortunately for us, this question has been asked and answered countless times, by wise men who came before us. Their knowledge, passed down over generations for several millennia, makes it easy for us to arrive at that answer ourselves and to apply it in our own lives. Sri Paramahansa Yogananda, in his book titled The Law of Success, gives us this same answer when he notes that “Success should be measured by the yardstick of happiness“.

Neither money, nor fame, nor power, nor any material accomplishment, has any intrinsic value (quite akin to the utility of academic grades) and are deemed important only as means to attaining happiness. In reality, though, happiness is seldom a function of any these extrinsic factors beyond a level required for basic sustenance. After that, all these things which we believe will bring us happiness will only give rise to fear, making happiness even more difficult to attain. This is clearly explained by the great poet Bharthruhari

भोगे रोगभयं कुले च्युतिभयं वित्ते नृपालाद्भयं
मौने दैन्यभयं बले रिपुभयं रूपे जराया भयं
शास्त्रे वादिभयं गुणे खलभयं काये कृतान्तात् भयं
सर्वं वस्तु भयान्वितं भुवितले वैराग्यमेवाभयम्
In enjoyment of pleasures, there is fear of disease; in nobility, there is fear of disgrace; in wealth, there is fear of King (or of losing the wealth to those in power); in silence, there is fear of weakness; in strength, there is fear of enemies; in beauty, there is fear of old age; in mastery of the sciences, there is fear of debaters (or of losing in a debate); in good qualities, there is fear from the (company of) evil men; in this body, there is fear from death. All things material on this earth are accompanied by fear and only vairagya (roughly, dispassion or detachment) offers freedom from fear. 

It is those who are destitute of substance that seek material riches to fill that vacuum, thereby hoping to find happiness. Those who find their lives out of control seek more power, thinking it will let them take control of their lives and be happy. Those lacking in self esteem seek to redeem themselves in the eyes of the world, craving for recognition and fame. Verily, none of these external accomplishments can quench their inner thirst. Those with worldly ambitions will keep extending the range of their target until at one point it comes beyond their reach, leading to disappointment. This is quite unlike a man of dispassion who has nothing to gain and nothing to guard – who, ever free, is beyond the definitions of success and failure that are laid down by society.

If one has wealth, or fame, or power, or anything else, but isn’t happy, all his accomplishments are worthless. Even if society considers him an achiever, he is a loser when it comes to accomplishing what he has been seeking from the bottom of his heart. A happy person, on the other hand, has succeeded where it matters, and is thus a winner regardless of how he is tagged by the society. Success thus defined is intrinsic, non-competitive, absolute, and very much within the reach of anyone who has their priorities right. It is up to each person whether they want to spend their life chasing after the mirage of worldly passions or focus on fulfilling the only worthwhile aspiration. Those who choose the former end up as losers, and those who follow the latter will eventually achieve victory and lasting happiness.

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