If you were to ask Lance Armstrong or Al Gore, I'd bet they'd say that setbacks are the salt that makes life's eventual victories so sweet. Life can't be full of victories, of course, because too many people are competing for the same stuff, so 'contests' are a basic psychological reality visible every time a sibling screams 'gimme that'.
Contests rules our lives. Some call this capitalism. I won't argue.
Even at the most elevated levels, the realities of contest and setbacks apply. Hillary, Barack and the other guy all want the same job. Two of them are going to experience a setback.
This has to happen. Life would get really boring if victories were as commonplace as cloudless days in Southern California. Effortless perfection makes us yawn and move on. We all need struggle.
(If you want to get metaphysical about it, you might say we are struggle. When the struggle ends, so do we).
Without setbacks, determination doesn't harden, and skills don't expand to meet the newest challenge. If we're lucky, whenever an obstacle appears that lays us flat on our ass, we get a moment for stunned reflection, a brief respite in which to ask ourselves two questions:
The first: 'What is it that I really want?'
The second: 'What am I willing to do to get it?'
Hillary -- to the enduring credit of her survival instinct -- asked herself those questions months ago, while Barack is asking himself the same things while bobbing in the toxic wake of Reverend Wrong.
No matter what the answers are, they're empowering. With them in hand, we can haul ourselves back up on our pins and make for the obstacle with bloody-minded intent or go around it.
This process of reflection, redefinition and resolution means that what will happen in the current democratic race is that an effective contender will finally emerge. The setbacks of this brutal contest are now preparing Barack or Hillary for the inevitable showdown with what's-his-name.
(This is what I'm hoping anyway. Let's see if I'm right).
I don't want to disguise my biases. I'm rooting for Barack because I see Hillary as a baggage-laden proponent of more of the same. Her public threats towards Iran are an eye-opener, a warning flag, a declaration of who she really is and what America will get if she becomes President.
'Yup, I'm a power-bunny!' Hillary says. 'Don't ya just love it?'
Many people missed the Iraq threat which was overshadowed by her 9% (can we please stop the double-digit b.s?) lead in Philadelphia. Some others say that it doesn't really count: (she's under a lot of stress, y'know? -Oops!)
But, like I said, she answered her own two questions months ago.
Barack, on the other hand, comes to the table with extremely clean hands. My God, the man actually resisted peer and voter pressure to go on the voting record against invading Iraq.
Try to remember how unpopular this was, and then think about what that means.
The inevitable process of corruption that goes hand in glove with political office (and the Oval Office in particular) has not even begun in him yet. Maybe America can get a couple of good years out of him before he turns into another DC Madam (or worse).
In any case, Obama currently deserves our meager respect and our support for coming this far without lobbyists, without compromise, without shutting down his own inner voice and doing the expedient thing.
Right now he's experiencing a setback, but he's an educated man so its appropriate to look to an old greek fellow for advice. Here's what Epictetus a very cool, former slave, has to say about difficulty and setbacks:
...they show what men are made of. When difficulty finds you, remember that God is like a fight trainer who likes to match his students against really rough, opponents because he wants to turn them into Olympic champions, something that cannot happen without profound effort. If you remember that you are in training, all setbacks become profitable...
-- Ask Al Gore or Lance Armstrong. Epictetus rocks!