Losing by winning



It startled me. As if I had forgotten all the stories about people who fought to be right, to win every imaginable kind of battle and reach every imaginable goal; people guided solely by selfish motives temporarily disguised as shared goals; people who won, only to discover that in the process, they destroyed the very things they genuinely loved, needed and wanted to have.

And then I remembered.

There once was this magical place I only visited a few times in my early childhood: a pastoral landscape, an old house with whitewashed walls and charming imperfections, embroidered linen towels that smelled like lavender and red geraniums in large glazed pots lining the staircase into the garden.

The edges of the yard were marked by overgrown grass with tips that sparkled in green and gold, a boundary you almost didn’t dare cross for fear of ending up lost in a dream. There was an enormous barn surrounded by patches of wildflowers and trees perfect for climbing. A stream came down from some secret spot in the hills and wrapped itself around the flower garden where the rose bushes were overgrown just enough so as to spill a bounty of heavy blossoms over a slightly crooked fence.

And there he was, a distant uncle, one of the heirs to this beautiful place. Instead of taking his share, he wanted it all. Not for himself of course, but so that the family could benefit. Everyone had an obligation to participate in his magnificent vision for the future: a grand estate, an enormous villa, perfectly groomed grounds and a thriving farm. How could they not?

After a bitter court battle, he won the rights to the entire property. His ‘reign’ began with the swift cutting and sale of the forest for lumber, and continued with the pouring of a sea of concrete over the entire lot surrounding the old house. Next, he started building the grand villa. Everyone was horrified, begged him to reconsider. But the more difficulties he came across, the greater his determination to prove that he was right.

In the meantime, the roof collapsed on the old house. Rain and snow ate through the damaged walls, furnishings, hand-woven carpets and all the family heirlooms that had survived wars and other disasters. Whatever bits of wooden floors, doors and window frames were left ended up as firewood.

In the end, the grand villa was never finished. And so both the old walls and the new stood next to each other like two ghosts lost forever in a cemetery of concrete.

It hurts even now to think that the giant hazelnut tree was cut down, and the gazebo next to it destroyed as well. I remember its small crooked table and the vines, home to tiny spiders and crickets that kept me company whenever I ate fresh hazelnuts and marveled at the purple stains left on my hands.

The walnut, apple, and pear trees in the orchard began to die. The small vineyard withered, the beehives emptied, the stream dried up. No crops ever grew. Perhaps the land did what the rest of my uncle’s family had done, including his wife…shut down and turned away, unwilling to continue witnessing such destruction.

And so there was nobody left to participate in his vision of greatness, and nothing left to share. All he ended up with were empty rooms and corridors ravaged by the elements, next to a bunch of dead trees and scorched hills in the distance. And a family name that had lost its meaning.

After that, his mental health deteriorated to the point that he spent his days in and out of the hospital.  He died alone and penniless.

I remember him when he was very young. He used to tell jokes and talk about bees and harvests with passion and modesty. He always pinched my nose which I didn’t like, but his hearty laugh made up for it. His wife was very pretty and smart, and unlike the other wives in the family, she was the kind of woman who stood not behind but next to her man. She had beautiful eyes and a wicked sense of humor. I can’t imagine how losing even her wasn’t enough for him to realize how he was destroying everything he loved and needed. Not to mention himself. Or maybe he did realize it then, which would explain his quick descent into madness.

Yes, winning might be a bold achievement, involving power and pride. But it is also a most delicate matter. Many often forget that it’s not about blindly pursuing personal goals without concern for consequences. There are always consequences. Creating value in life that is worthy of being called a victory is never a solitary or one-sided endeavor in either method or purpose. And it can not possibly involve the destruction of things or people who are part of that value.

“You are responsible forever for what you have tamed” the fox tells the Little Prince. Just as we are forever responsible to live up to whatever we fight for and win.

And yes, there are those who end up neither penniless nor insane as my uncle did, but rather well off and therefore apparently victorious. But it seems to me they are actually far worse off. At least ending up insane removes the chance for even a single moment of clarity. Because once you’ve lost by winning, there’s no winning it all back. And I can’t imagine what it must feel like to face that truth and see the victories you’ve spent a lifetime pursuing are unequivocally empty.

“In a full heart there is room for everything, and in an empty heart there is room for nothing.” ~ Antonio Porchia

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