To learn, leaven loss

           “Most wins are just points in a ledger, but an interesting loss . . . . that's priceless.”
                         -  Jimkin Oceanman, Notes from Sea

This past April marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Copenhagen in which Horatio Nelson and his fleet defeated a smaller Danish fleet. I don’t give a hoot for the legendary Admiral, but I’m intrigued by the fact that the wise people of Copenhagen found it important to mark the event.

“It may seem strange for Denmark to commemorate a defeat,” said the curator of the Danish National History Museum, Soeren Mentz. “But we are celebrating three things. Nelson, who was a great man, the courage of the Danes, who almost won the battle, and the fact that it took the British fleet as long as four hours to beat us.”


Reflecting on one’s losses and trying to pry some value from this reflection strike me as important to self-knowledge and to developing a generous outlook on life.

I’m reacting, perhaps, to an environment in which the emphasis is increasingly on winning: in business culture, where “winning” has overtones of salvation; in popular entertainment, where winning is portrayed as an unproblematic good and where losing usually has tragic overtones; and in the increasingly corrupt world of professional sport, where athletes mark minor accomplishments by pumping their fists in the air.

The elevation of winning to the status of a virtue has been attended by increased belief in the value of “self esteem” and increased acceptance of self advertisement.

Defeat can discourage. Personal defeats come with a cost. But it should be a cost worth paying. A series of victories is unlikely to make one reconsider the “baseless fabric” of our self-important fantasies. We are indeed such stuff as dreams are made of, and defeat – literally, undoing or unmaking – can nourish the seeds of truth and awakening.

Self-confidence can be useful; so too, a sense of uncertainty. A sense of dignity can ennoble one; so too can a keen sense of one’s own frailties.

It has been fashionable for much of the last century to criticize the imperialist and to pity the conquered. But I’m beginning to appreciate the benefits of defeat.

Some nations that have been conquered in war strike me as having internalized the wisdom that comes from grappling with loss. In the 20th century, the Germans, the Japanese and the Poles, and earlier, the Scots and the English, all in their own ways, seem to have learned to live with the residue of defeat, to use some of the cultural and physical tools of the conqueror to further their own aims, and to regard military defeat as empirical history, not as a cause for shame, or a scab to be picked.

The Irish and the Québecois, it seems to me, manifest both acceptance of and anxiety about loss – making them complex, hard-to-understand, and fascinating places.

The fashion in which the Danes marked the anniversary of the Battle of Copenhagen prompted me to think: Wouldn’t it be interesting if such celebrations (i.e., of defeat) were standard practice? We’d hear:
- the Germans on the Second World War: “We lost, and damn good thing, too! Ja. Is better.”
- The Americans on Vietnam - “We lost, but to real masters of guerilla warfare! Now, let’s do business.”
- the Québecois on 1763 - “What the ’eck, tabernouche, at least we didn’t ’ave to go back to die in France! Encore du vin?”
And so forth. It would make for a healthier world.

As for me, I’m going to try to follow my own advice and treat some of my losses as starting points for meditation – about me, my world, and my place in it.

- Jamie MacKinnon

Related reading:  Losses in politics can also be useful . . .