Can One Be Heroic In Defeat?


Roger Federer is being lavishly praised for his heroic battle with Novak Djokovic in this year’s Wimbledon final. The Swiss football team is being lavishly praised for its heroic battle with Argentina in this year’s World Cup round of 16. Federer and the national team were both close to victory but they both lost. Can one be heroic in defeat?

The concept of heroism is an important part of human history. Ancient Greek myths are full of heroic acts, almost all of which were done in the face of vengeful or idiosyncratic gods. The heroic act was done by a human who was trying to overcome what was predestined as part of his or her destiny. The very meaning of heroism was to try to overcome what was preordained, to try to be an individual in the face of larger powers. In ancient Greece, one went to the Oracle of Delphi to try to decipher what was going to happen.
The heroic act, therefore, was often doomed to fail. To be human, in this sense, was to try to be in control of one’s fate in the face of that which we cannot control. We try to set our sights on that which we want, but the gods, or fate, often have other ideas about what is in store for us. Heroism is the human struggle, and it is a struggle. Its element of hubris is that we can never fully control our fate. For whatever reason, gods, God, or what have you, “stuff happens”. Karl Marx, for example, wrote that history was determined by social forces just as Sigmund Freud described how much our character is determined by our early relationships with our parents. For Marx and Freud, we are not in total control of our destinies.
If we know all of the above, why do we struggle? If our fate is predetermined, why do we pretend to do something differently? If we understand that we cannot control our fate, why don’t we just sit back and enjoy the ride? Why did I continue to play basketball and dream of an NBA career when I am only 1’72”?
Watching Federer’s match against Djokovic was energizing as well as enigmatic. In the twilight of his career, Roger was trying to overcome what age and fatherhood had determined. Many, like me, had announced his demise. Almost 33 years old, he had clearly lost his edge. But down 2-5 in the fourth set, saving a match point, he began his heroic struggle against his fate. His serves were devastating, the whiplash backhands overwhelming. He was in charge; he was determined to overcome all his critics and to have his twin daughters watch him lift the victor’s trophy for his 18th Grand Slam title at the tennis tour’s most prestigious tournament.
Was it possible that he could win? Could he turn back the clock to become the oldest Slam champion in the Open era? Or, were all the gods piled up against him? For all the joy at watching him regain his form and childlike exuberance, in the back of my mind was the feeling that despite the fourth set surge, it was not in the cards. Just as the Swiss soccer team had been heroic in its battle with Argentina, for all that it had controlled Lionel Messi for most of the match, there was always that sinking feeling that it was just not to be.
It is therefore puzzling to watch a match intellectually knowing which side will win while hoping that the struggle will eventually overturn the fates. David did defeat Goliath, Odysseus did return home in spite of all he had to endure. There are those moments when the heroic struggle overcomes that which the fates seem to have predestined. There have been very short basketball players who have starred in the NBA. Federer could have won; or could he have? Could the Swiss team have beaten Argentina? For the moment, all we can do is to lavish praise on their heroic struggles.   

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