If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same
(If – Rudyard Kipling)
Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, is a study in contrasts, considering many of the opposites that we encounter in daily life. He describes being able to do what others cannot; of handling situations with equanimity; of dealing with life in a balanced way.
Yet his comment, above, on the opposites, Triumph and Disaster, seems to add another dimension. Most versions of the poem capitalise the words as proper nouns, almost as if they are people, or even gods. And, in truth, many people see triumph as an idol to be worshipped at all costs.
Look again, though, at the contrast. Consider the synonymous definition of Triumph and Disaster both being imposters. How true. Triumph lasts only as long as the reward, and sometimes not even that long. When you think of the origin of the term, White Elephant, it becomes obvious that success in pleasing the monarch may be short-lived when the prize was a white elephant, which was expensive to keep, and could not be disposed of.
Most triumphs, of course, are not of that kind. We speak of exam success, sports success, job success, and so on. Yet the euphoria experienced even in these situations can be short-lived. Passing one set of exams may only lead to another set; and how many people still work in the field of their college major. A gold medal, today, is often followed by training, tomorrow, ready for the next event. And we soon lose interest in a highly sought-after job, once the day-to-day grind sets in and we get to know the faults of our colleagues; and they get to know ours!
Disasters, too, are relatively short-lived. Exam failure is often simply an incentive to study harder, next time; losing a race becomes motivation to do more and better training; and losing a job is an incentive to find a better one.
So, yes. Triumph and Disaster are imposters. They may engender strong emotions at the time, but those emotion fade and are replaced by the next big issue facing us in life.
An Alternative View
The contrasts in Kipling’s poem all relate to our own actions and attitudes. They ask us to meditate, mindfully, on how we behave and how we react (or respond) to various events and people. They encourage a balanced view of our situations and relationships. Can we talk with crowds and keep our virtue? Can we walk with kings without losing the common touch?
However, look back at the concept of Triumph and Disaster. Triumph, for one person, can mean disaster for another. Although exam success is often shared, a sports winner almost presupposes that there will be losers. Getting a new job usually means that someone else was disappointed.
It is the same with other triumphs. We need to remember that when we are successful, there may be others who have suffered a “disaster” so that we can succeed; if succeed is the right word. Keeping this in mind will help us to be balanced, both in our celebrations and in our lamentations. Why?
Have you ever watched the award ceremony of a sports final? The camera focuses on the winners; but looking deeper into the picture, we often see the sadness on faces of the losers as they sit, quietly waiting for an opportunity to slink away.
The same is true of other triumphs. Think about bidding for an item in an auction. You may be happy that you were able to watch and win the item. But how many other people were watching the same item and became sad about not winning the auction.
So when it comes to triumphs, we need to remember that our triumph can often be someone else’s disaster. They may be severely disappointed at their loss. As we travel home with euphoria coursing through our veins, they will be going home in relative depression. Our success may even cause them a sad loss. Indeed, people tell me that driving home from an apparent triumph, they have been overwhelmed at the sense of disaster that it has caused to the other person. They have felt the loss suffered by that person, and it makes them realise that triumph really is an imposter.
Truly, Kipling’s poem is a reminder that both Triumph and Disaster are imposters. They pretend to be things that they are not. They produce feelings that do not last; and they fail to live up to the promises that they appear to have made.
So, next time you feel sad about a loss, remember that your “disaster” may have brought joy to another person. Are you able to feel good about that?
Think, too, about any positive consequences of your loss. Positive consequences? Oh yes. And if you are unable to think of these positive consequences, just spend a few moments thinking about how the outcome could have been much worse. Then you will be able to see the positive consequences as you become aware of the disastrous scope of what could have happened.
And next time you feel happy about a triumph, think about the loss suffered by the other person. Are you able to feel badly about that?
Think, too about the negative consequences of your gain. Will there be repercussions that will be difficult to deal with? Will you be expected to carry out additional duties, or provide additional funds or resources? What will this “triumph” cost you?
These balanced feelings of empathy, coupled with a realistic view of your triumphs and disasters, will help you to put life events into perspective; and they will help you to be a more balanced, more mindful person. You will develop better relations with others; and with yourself. Or, as Kipling put it, “You’ll be a Man, my son!”
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