Win or Lose, Turn to Beowulf

Drew Brees, Super Bowl MVPDrew Brees, Super Bowl MVP    

A few years back, if I remember the article correctly, I came across two interesting statistics about life in America on Super Bowl Sunday.  During the game the country’s crime drops to the lowest level of the year. Following the game, however, acts of spousal violence hit their highest levels of the year.  Presumably the latter are caused by the agony of losing, often made worse by drinking and by having lost money on the game. 

I’m writing most of this post before the Super Bowl so that I have a clear head since I expect to be either jubilant or downcast when it’s over (although I will not be drinking or gambling and, if the Colts lose, Julia and I will not be coming to blows). The 8th century Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf provides valuable help with winning and losing.

Let’s first, however, acknowledge the winners (whom I now know to be the Saints) and allow them the euphoria of the victory.  Beowulf captures the giddiness of such a moment in images of young warriors madly riding about on horses following the hero’s victory over Grendel.  Here they are:

Then away they rode, the older retainers
with many a young man following after,
a troop on horseback, in high spirits
on their bay steeds.  Beowulf’s doings
were praised over and over again.

And later:

Meanwhile, the Danes kept racing their mounts
down sandy lanes.  The light of day
broke and kept brightening.  Bands of retainers
galloped in excitement to the gabled hall
to see the marvel . . .

The marvel is Grendel’s severed arm, which perhaps we can think of as the Super Bowl Trophy.  There is even post-game commentary.  The bard breaks into song, putting Beowulf’s victory in the context of great victories of the past.   Beowulf is compared to the legendary Sigemund and, with his near perfect game, quarterback Drew Brees enters the pantheon of the greats.

But while they may exult, the winners must resist schadenfreude, which is to say, feasting on the tears of the losers.  I have written about this in a previous post, describing it as a very human response.  It is also the most transitory of delights and ultimately makes one feel small.  A real epic hero, if we are to judge from Beowulf, doesn’t indulge in schadenfreude.

Look at how he treats Unferth following his slaying of Grendel.  Before he faces the monsters, Beowulf gets a dismissive challenge from Unferth, who thinks he’s all hype.  Beowulf gives as good as he gets and ushers a Joe Namath “I guarantee a victory” boast:

He know he can trample down you Danes
to his heart’s content, humiliate and murder
without fear of reprisal.  But he will find me different.
I will show him how Geats shape to kill
in the heat of battle.  Then whoever wants to
may go bravely to mead, when the morning light
scarfed in sun-dazzle, shines forth from the south
and brings another daybreak to the world.

Beowulf’s victory shuts up Unferth’s trash talk:

There was less tampering and big talk then
from Unferth the boaster, less of his blather
as the hall-thanes eyed the awful proof
of the hero’s prowess, the splayed hand
up under the eaves.

Beowulf, however, is a gracious winner.  When Unferth’s sword comes up short against Grendel’s mother (he has, in an act of humility, lent it to Beowulf), Beowulf doesn’t point to its shortcomings—which is to say, he doesn’t rub either his victory over Grendel or over the mother in Unferth’s face:

Then that stalwart fighter ordered Hrunting
to be brought to Unferth, and bade Unferth
take the sword and thanked him for lending it.
He said he had found it a friend in battle
and a powerful help; he put no blame
on the blade’s cutting edge.  He was a considerate man.

So that’s how you should behave if your team has just won.  

But what does Beowulf tell us about handling a loss?

Well, first of all, it acknowledges the pain.  One expression of pain is Grendel’s cry after losing his arm.  There are professional athletes who talk about losing in comparable terms:

                Then an extraordinary
wail arose . . . ,
a God-cursed scream and strain of catastrophe,
the howl of the loser, the lament of the hell-serf
keening his wound.

Perhaps you’re feeling like wailing right now.  Or perhaps you are feeling like Hrothgar when he loses his best friend to a vengeful Grendel’s mother:

“Rest?  What is rest?  Sorrow has returned.
Alas for the Danes! Aeschere is dead.

Now, I’m not saying that seeing one’s team lose a football game is the same as having a friend die.  If one thinks it is, then one has lost all perspective.  But losing does involve witnessing the death of something precious.

Hrothgar wants to wallow in his grief, which is not healthy.  In fact, it unnerves Beowulf, who tells him to to be a man:

                                       Bear up
and be the man I expect you to be.

But sucking it up (or telling yourself to “get over it, it’s only a game”) is not enough.   Beowulf’s journey into the dark lake where the monster resides also gives us ways to handle sports upset.  (It also, much more importantly, provides guidance in how to handle truly significant grief, but I’m not writing about that today.)

Beowulf jumping into the lake is facing up to his feelings.   He doesn’t pretend he’s not torn to the core and he doesn’t claim that he should just gut out his emotional pain.  He’s hurting, which is captured in the underwater sea monsters stabbing at his heart.  But rather than fight them, first he lets them grab him and take him to their underwater hall.

But then, at the bottom of the lake (and of his depression), he grabs a giant sword that he finds there and slays Grendel’s mother.  Think of that sword as the realization that there is more important work to be done.  Perspective will be restored eventually.   

But it can’t be restored prematurely.  You have to take your dark journey through the lake first.  You have to see the failure of your will power (Beowulf’s grip fails him) and the failure of everyday coping mechanisms (the regular sword he is carrying).  You have to feel the full impact of the cold before you resurface.

In other words, go ahead and grieve for Peyton Manning and the Colts–you’ve invested a lot of yourself in them.  Your heart is involved.  If you didn’t care so much, it wouldn’t hurt so much.  Let it hurt. 

And then it will pass.  To use the images from the poem, the hard ice knife of grief will melt and the monsters will disappear from the lake:

Meanwhile, the sword
began to wilt into gory icicles
to slather and thaw.  It was a wonderful thing,
the way it all melted as ice melts
when the Father eases the fetters off the frost
and unravels the water-ropes.

Beowulf emerges from the dark lake to fight more battles.  So will the Colts, who could well be back at the Super Bowl next year.  So will you.

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