Do We Learn Better from Victories or Defeats?

Posted on July 6, 2017


I always thought that I learned best from defeats rather than victories. I recently read a commentary on Psalms 20: 6-8 that got me to thinking. Those particular verses have to do with remembering and invoking the power of the Lord. The commentary also drew on Deuteronomy 7: 18-19 in which the Hebrews are reminded by the Lord of what he did for them in Egypt, and to fully expect him to protect them in the future against all their enemies.

Then, in 1 Samuel 17:37, the young shepherd boy, David, calls on the Lord to protect him as he has in the past against bears and lions. David’s faith is that he will also take care of him when he faces the giant Philistine warrior, Goliath.

In each instance, the Hebrews, or David, or the Apostle Paul writing to the Christians in Rome–as in Romans 8:31– are either recalling or being reminded of great victories and power of God in the past.

Sometimes, however, a great defeat can be called upon to rally the troops. If we were in Texas, every one of you would “Remember the Alamo!” the battle cry of Texans rising to defeat their Mexican foes who slaughtered every last one of the defenders of the little mission of the Alamo in San Antonio in 1836 during the Texas war for independence.

Later on, in the Cuban-Spanish-American War of 1898, “Remember the Maine” rallied the Americans around the flag, on the mistaken assumption that the nasty Spaniards had blown up the American battleship Maine in Havana Harbor in February 1898 and so we must go to war to defend our honor and punish the Spaniards. That the Maine probably suffered an internal explosion becomes a mere historical footnote in the coming of that war.

So, the way I see it, both victories and defeats can work powerfully on our psyche, our spirit, our will to do everything from enthusiastically joining battle to simply having a positive frame of mind.

Major defeats in battle tend to provoke serious rethinking of strategies and tactics to improve one’s chances of victory the next time around. The old saying that “generals always fight the last war” has a lot of truth in it. If they won the last war, then they move along that same track of battle plans, tactics, weapons, and so forth. If they got waxed in the last war, or major battle, then they turn to the drawing board and the inventor to help prepare them for the next battle.

Whenever I turned up on the wrong side of the grading curve in a class in school, I usually drew some good conclusions. “Maybe I should read and study as the prof. suggested in his syllabus.” The diagnosis, in the face of defeat (like an F, a good sign of defeat and, obviously, failure), was a beneficial prescription for success the next time around.

Defeats can do one of two things to you: they can overwhelm you and leave you in despair, or you can take stock, learn from them, and move forward.

There are two sources to your destiny, if I may use such a high-flying word to describe our common lives. Most of us don’t associate what we do with the word “destiny.” It sounds too literary, the stuff of legends and great historical moments and characters. Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King, Jr both had a “destiny.” But it fits us all, regardless of what you do. Each of us has a today, a tomorrow, and, of course, a yesterday.

Your today and tomorrow, let me suggest, is formed by God (but you have to listen and believe) and yourself. God also is the source of good things in the past—read the first few paragraphs above—and you are usually the source of failures. But failures and defeats are themselves the building blocks of your immediate and long-term future. Take your defeats as slow-building success blocks. Don’t look around for why something did or did not happen to you. Take a look in the mirror.

And when the victories come, and I note that graduation is just around the corner for a lot of our children, teenagers, and young adults, take it with modesty and humility. You have been lifted up by God for great things. Take all those victory steps and occasional stumbles and defeats as great teachers and move forward in his promises.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday April 30, 2017 as Do We Learn Better from Victories or Defeats?