Win the Day

When Chip Kelly was football coach at the University of Oregon, he was interviewed frequently by sports stations in Portland. He quickly gained a reputation as a terrible “interview,” as the stations put it. They kept asking him question he didn’t want to answer and he kept not answering them.

I wouldn’t say I ever thought Chip was a charming person, but one afternoon, I heard himwin the day 3 talking about “win the day.” I think the interviewer must have been pushing him about overemphasizing a winning record—I don’t remember, really—because Kelly interrupted him with an extended lecture on what “win the day” meant to Oregon.

You win a day’s practice when you keep on hustling when you are tired and learn what you need to learn that day. You win the day when you show up, still sore from that previous game, and begin to address the skills you will need for the next one. You win the day when you come to practice with an open mind, having left behind the stupid plays you made last Saturday and determined to leave the regret behind and address the day freshly.

Every one of those is “winning the day.” I think Chip became my favorite football coach that day. [1] I began that day to think through what “winning the day” would mean for me. Here’s the short form: meet the challenge you are facing right now and call it a win. Here are some everyday examples.

  • You are not facing the challenge of passing the course. You are facing the challenge of giving your whole mind to the time you have set aside for studying. You can win the day today.
  • You are not facing the challenge of reconciling with a former, now alienated, friend. You are facing the challenge of absorbing the insults or the angry passivity and not responding in kind. You can win the day today.
  • You are not facing a meaningless retirement. You are facing the challenge of investing yourself in a person or a project or a book or a movie that engages you and that feeds your soul. You can win the day today.

And here is perhaps the most famous example of all. In the movie, The Lion in Winter, wewin the day 4 see three princes in a cell, waiting for their father, King Henry, to come and kill them.

Prince Richard: (Anthony Hopkins, right) [Henry’s] here. He’ll get no satisfaction out of me. He isn’t going to see me beg.

Prince Geoffrey: (John Castle, center) My, you chivalric fool…as if the way one fell down mattered.

Prince Richard: When the fall is all there is, it matters a great deal. [2]

Richard has “winning the day” in mind. That is why it “matters a great deal,” and he is right.

Let me tell you why I have finally decided to write about this. There are two reasons. I’ll tell you about them and stop.

First, I have a friend who is slowly and quietly losing track of his life. He seems depressed sometimes, but sometimes he seems confused but not depressed. He seems to think he has a problem and he is about to address it decisively, once he gets a few things clear. He wants to know in what city he is living now. He wants to know what kind of place this is—he says, gesturing around at the room.  He says he wants to go home, but can’t remember where that is. He wants to get his wife before he goes, but when he is reminded that his wife died some time ago, he thinks and then begins to nod as if that information is familiar.

How is he going to win the day? The best answers are internal and I will be answering as an observer. [3] On the depressed days, he needs to own up to being depressed. Denying it is attractive, but it will not help him. He needs to be no more depressed than he really is. If doing something that distracts his attention from how depressed he is will help, then choosing to do that distraction is winning the day. When he is confused but not depressed, he needs to gather all the information he needs to make a plan. He has people around who will tell him the truth; people he can trust. Trusting them, in the midst of all the confusion, is the way he can win the day.

If you think of the “day” as his life, nothing looks very promising. He’s going to lose that race as we all do. But each day he is granted is a day he can win if he is willing to focus on that day itself (not on the more general process of which it is a part) and do his best and to take satisfaction in it.

win the dayI admire this man’s struggle. When you walk in off the street and look at the people you see in a retirement center, even a very good retirement center, it is easy to think of them as “losers” living in a place for losers. But since I am going there myself in a year or so, I have begun to wonder whether a lot of those people are busy winning the day, every day.

  • Can you win the day if you are wearing old people’s diapers? Sure.
  • Can you win the day if you have to constantly monitor your mouth for drool. Absolutely.
  • Can you win the day when your confusion makes you want to be cranky with the helpers on the ward? Yes, you can.

These are not questions I feel cavalier about. I’ve been there. In 2006, I had a very confusing bout with depression. I hadn’t ever been depressed before. I’ve had days where I experience what I call “downdrafts,” but this was like nothing I had ever experienced and I didn’t know how long it was going to last. I postponed from week to week the decision of whether to sign up to teach my fall courses at Portland State.  No one knew what it was “about,” if depressions are “about something.” I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t be fully awake—and worst of all, I couldn’t be interested in anything. What to do?

I went to see a collection of doctors, all of whom agreed that they had no idea what was going on, but they prescribed some anti-depressant medication. But now I am without any coherent narrative of what is going on and how long it will last. The depression is a hole with no dimensions and if there is a contest, it will win and I will lose.

win the day 1But I won a lot of days. Pride is an emotion and I was doing without emotions, being  deep in the hole where I was.  But if I had had emotions available to me, I would have been proud of myself on many of those nights. I looked at what faced me that day and I won the day. I assessed my work favorably. If I had had access to emotions, pride would have been justified. But even without the emotions, my conclusion was that I had done everything I could. [4]

I remember getting out of bed and walking down the hall and around the circle—kitchen, dining room, living room, hallway, back to bed. I did it once and collapsed back into bed, sweating and breathing hard. The next time, I tried to do it twice. Then three times, and back to bed, panting with the effort. Eventually, I was able to walk around the block. I won that day big time.

I exposed myself to things that used to interest me, hoping that the interest would be like a spark that would jump that little gap. It seemed, at the time, as unlikely as being struck by lightening, the legendarily improbable event, but I knew it needed only to be a little spark jumping a little gap and firing the only cylinder that was working at the moment. Every day I gave myself the chance to be interested in something. Most days, that did not happen, but every day I put myself in the place where interest might strike me, I judged that I had won that day.

Winning the day is always about something you can do. You might not be able to make the team, but you can give yourself unreservedly to practicing the skills you would need. Preparing to die properly, in a way you will be proud of, may not sound like a victory, but as Prince Richard says, “when it is all there is, it matters a great deal.” Trying to grasp the fragments of reality as they come whirling by and by holding on the them, to present yourself as the person you once were, is a superb accomplishment. To push against the meaninglessness, the sense that doing one thing is not better or worse than doing another, is the task that engaged Sisyphus. To continue to push is to win the day.

Aragorn had winning in mind as he addressed his troops before the gate of Mordor. He understood that “winning the day” was something they could do, however the battle turned out.  This was before the Eagles came–not another Chip Kelly reference–and before the Ringbearer had fulfilled his quest.  It was when things looked completely hopeless.

“The day may come,” he said, “when the courage of Men fails, when we forsake our friends, and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day.” [5]

[1] One of my favorite fleece vests has only University of Oregon on it. It is black and green, colors the Ducks often use, but it is not the green Oregon uses. It is not “Oregon green.” In fact, it is “Kelly green.” I saw it in the window of the Duck Shop and laughed out loud. I went into the store and bought one and turned around and walked back out. I think they meant it as a pun. I did.
[2] In the movie, The Lion in Winter, the line ends, “…it matters.” But I learned it from President Jed Bartlet on The West Wing and I like those three extra words, “a great deal.”
[3] In the next section, I will be the subject of the report so don’t get critical prematurely.
[4] Bette was a wonderful help to me. We had not been married a year yet, but she knew the man she was married to. She says I am not to say precisely how she helped. I believe she said I would not be winning the day on which I wrote about it.
[5] One of the lines in the movie that is so good, I wish it were in the book.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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