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The Agony of Defeat

The Winter Olympics are upon us at a time when many of us are hoping for an early spring. Unlike Punxsutawney Phil who saw his shadow, we want to know the future. Unlike Phil, we know the end – we just don’t know when. I’ve mentioned my dog, Belle several times, who turned thirteen this winter. I don’t know what goes through her mind when she is chasing birds along the beach but I’m pretty sure she isn’t thinking about being ninety-one-years-old. I’m pretty sure she isn’t worried about breaking a hip when she crashes into the waves.  And I know she isn’t thinking about the cold shower from the hose she will get after we run home.

You may remember the intro to the Wide World of Sports which predated ESPN. At the beginning of every show you heard, “…and the agony of defeat,” while watching a ski jumper tumble down the mountain side. Well, I’m pretty sure Belle has never thought about the agony of defeat. And I’m certain she has been spared thinking about the agony of death. We are the only species granted that opportunity.

Yet, in some ways, that is what the Olympics are about. The Winter Olympics are a series of contests that attempt to defy life as we know it. Despite the snow or ice; they  get off the couch to jump higher, go faster, and push the envelope that would kill mere mortals. But in the end, we celebrate not just the medal winners but all of the mortals. They learned they can’t defy life. In the end, they learned how to find their way in this world. They are celebrated because in their quest, whether victory or defeat, they confronted the limits of their mortality.

There are no parades for the grieving, no mountains lined with fans, no arenas crowded with well-wishers. It’s not what we want or need. For us, there is snow and ice – a mountain to overcome, a field of ice to get around. And when we think we have, we find the next mountain, and another field of ice. The fans have long gone home, and Phil is back in his hole. It is a solitary struggle but along the way we meet other Olympians learning how to climb their mountain of grief.

I didn’t choose to be human. It’s a waste of time to wonder but sometimes I do. I wonder if I’d be happier being Belle. I think I would like plowing into the waves in winter. I think I’d like not knowing I was ninety-one. And there is something to be said for not knowing the agony of defeat. But I wouldn’t like lying at the doorstep waiting to be hooked to a leash for the next wave. I know I’d soon tire of eating the same thing from the same bowl every night. I know I wouldn’t  appreciate  a life limited by only the moment, unaware of meaning. A life unaware of meaning is simply not human. 

My only choice is: am I going to climb my mountain in hopes of a good run or am I going to sit on the side and watch others ski, skate, and ride? While the thrill of victory has alluded me, it’s on the mountain that I meet other Olympians. This week she was a woman who woke up to find her husband dead from a heart attack, a soldier who lost  twenty-seven of his friends in battle, and a couple of fathers who are learning how to raise their kids. I found out that I am not alone.

And so I am aware of meaning in my life. I am human, after all.

Andy is a Clinical Psychologist who lost his son in a tragic motorcycle accident and now authors articles on bereavement. The quiz is available! Go to to find out if you may have Prolonged Grief Disorder. Look forward to his upcoming posts, and books. Follow him at his website, and to find out more about prolonged grief.

The Agony of Defeat

Andy Davidson

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APA Reference
Davidson, A. (2018). The Agony of Defeat. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 20, 2019, from


Last updated: 22 Feb 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 22 Feb 2018
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