Losing to Win
Sometimes you’ve got to lose before you win. At least, that seems to be Sam Hinkie’s belief. Between 2013 and 2016, he was the manager of the 76ers, a basketball team from Philadelphia. During that time, he came up with the phrase “trust the process” to encourage patience in those who doubted his strategy. In an article about Hinkie, Jason Wolf quoted him as saying you have to “start with an end in mind.”  That’s what he was doing with the 76ers.
During their yearly draft, the National Basketball Association rewards losing teams with first choice from among the incoming college recruits. To exploit that tradition, Hinkie offloaded some veteran players and signed up a number of rookies, including one who was injured and couldn’t play. This led to a lot of losses for his team, but it also put them in a position to acquire some top picks later.
Hinkie’s plan was unconventional because it focused on the long term. In our impatient world, that is not a popular approach.
“Trust the Process”
“People are too willing to scratch the itch of the near thing,” Hinkie said during a speech for some Stanford graduate students.  He believed in the process. He figured that if you got that right, the outcome would take care of itself. It’s a kind of faith. After all, we can’t be sure about the future. Almost anything can happen. But if you understand that losing, or relapsing, or failing is part of the process, you can keep going. When you think long term, you don’t mind losing the battle to win the war. You trust in the process. 
But not everyone had the patience to see Hinkie’s plan through to the end. In 2016, the team’s owners began taking away some of his decision-making power, so he resigned.  Then, in 2017, the 76ers qualified for the playoffs for the first time in years. Was that Hinkie’s fault? Had he created a winning team by first assembling a losing one? Were the players right to “trust the process”?
When Is the End?
None of us win every game we play, no matter what the game is. To trust in the process means to have faith that, regardless of how things look right now, they will work out okay in the end. It’s like a tumultuous love story where the curtain falls on the joyful strains of a wedding march.
But is that really the ending?
If we trust in the process, we have to realize that as long as our life continues, so will the ups and downs of our days. Marriages are not all passion and contentment. In every life there is loss and illness. That’s why traditional wedding vows contain those words “worse” and “poorer” and “sickness.” We promise to support our partners through difficulty and storm because those things touch us all, even after we think we have arrived, even after we have won.
Nothing lasts forever. Pain eventually follows all triumph. It’s just part of the process.
A Life Turned Upside Down
Recently, at my chaplain job, I met with two patients who each had a different rare disease that suddenly debilitated them. Though the likelihood of cure was good for them both, they faced long, difficult months of recovery. Their lives had changed significantly. No longer were they the people they had known themselves to be. Even if they regained their earlier vitality and abilities, they had experienced the discombobulation of a world turned upside down, and they would never be the same.
Perhaps they would be wiser, or kinder, or more forgiving. Both said they expected to slow down, take time to think, feel, reach out to loved ones. They are living through a “process.” Their losses may become wins. Yet, even if they end up disabled in some way, they have the opportunity to create a gift out of their suffering.
Our capacity to find meaning from tragedy doesn’t make pain and trauma a good thing. Pain is just a thing that happens to us. If we have faith in the process, though, we can let go and surrender to the moment. Life will go on, and the process will encourage us grow into better human beings.
We Don’t Always Recover
But what if our illness is not something we can heal from? If the process leads to our death, or if we are left with some permanent scar, can we still trust that, in the end, all will work out?
There was the patient who’d been told by her doctor there was nothing that could be done to keep her alive, that she should go onto hospice. But she didn’t want to go on hospice. She wanted to live. For her, the process she was living through was not a friend. She didn’t trust it. She wanted to defy it.
A different patient, one who hated his disability and could not tolerate his pain, prayed for death, but his illness would kill him any time soon. He could live for months or years. For him, the process was infuriating. Like the dying woman, he did not trust it.
As we isolate ourselves to keep from spreading the coronavirus to our friends and neighbors, our fears and sorrows are heightened. Patients are lonely, trying to scrape together some comfort from phone calls. Families are bereft, unable to sit with loved ones who are dying. How can we trust in a process that feels so cruel? Some things cannot be undone, and some hurts do not heal. What if things do not get better? Can we still trust in the process?
When Life Is Hell
All things change, the bad and the good. We may be suffering through a living hell, and yet we won’t feel this way forever.
When we’re in the middle of our suffering, though, we don’t always remember that. Now that many of us are isolated and alone, our pains feel worse than they would otherwise. In the United States, we have lost jobs, businesses, hopes, dreams. Our plans have crumbled into ruin. It doesn’t matter right now if the 76ers have the talent to win the season, because the season has been canceled. Resources are dwindling. Our political and religious divisions keep widening. In cramped homes, tempers flare. Families living with addiction or abuse see no way out of their suffering.
If you can’t escape your hell, why would you trust in the process?
Preferring Death to God
For some of us, life is hell, and then we die. Our moments of joy are fleeting, if they exist at all. Over and over, we are betrayed, abused, condemned. Just as it’s hard to love when we never received love, it’s hard to trust when those closest to us repeatedly let us down.
A Mexican folk tale tells of a beggar who refused to share his soup with God because God was unfair, rewarding the wicked and cursing the good. Yet he shared his meal with Death, because Death was impartial. He took the rich and the poor both. 
In a similar way, those who have lived empty, miserable lives sometimes feel angry at God or believe in a punishing and cruel deity. Who would go to such a god for comfort? Yet if we can’t trust in something bigger than ourselves, whether that be God, or fate, or the universe, or the ocean, we aren’t likely to trust that everything will turn out all right in the end.
When we live comfortable lives, however, such a theology is easy to accept. If we know love, have a decent job, a safe home, friends to laugh and cry with, time to rest, food to eat, we are blessed. For us, trusting in the process makes sense.
Living with Open Hands
One Sunday, during our Recovery Church circle, a member said, “I can trust if I have my hands open.”
I was struck by this image of hands reaching out, palms up, vulnerable, open to life. What does it mean to open our hands to life? Does it mean we welcome everything, we’re grateful for whatever comes our way, whether it’s a prize or a party, an illness or psychological torment?
In the past, we’ve talked about being grateful for everything, even things we don’t like. I still haven’t figured out how to do that, or even if it’s a reasonable or desirable goal. Yet if we can trust in the process, open our hands to what life brings us, our sufferings may be easier to live through and our joys richer. Perhaps a living hell would be less horrible if we could trust in the rightness of all things or believe that, in the end, all would be well.
From my days of darkness and despair, I learned that when I surrender to the moment, that moment is easier to live through. If instead, I add to the pain by focusing on my anger or anxiety or yearning, if I let my thoughts whirl or cast about for deliverance, I feel worse.
Who Do We Trust?
But sometimes our refusal to accept our suffering motivates us to make changes, and that is a good thing. Movements for justice and inner transformation both arise out of discontent. Unhappiness can inspire us to leave poisonous relationships or mind-numbing jobs, and it feeds revolutions. If all we do is open our hands to life, will we remain trapped in a hell we could have changed had we but bestirred ourselves?
Is there a balance between accepting what is and fighting for change? After all, how many of us have striven for goals that, once reached, seem lifeless? Have we never made decisions that took us down paths we wish we hadn’t traveled? After all, revolutions do not always result in utopias.
Whatever we do, there are often unintended, and unwelcomed, consequences. Is that how we learn to trust in the process, by screwing up our lives enough that we finally surrender? Perhaps the process itself is wiser than we are. So maybe we should trust it.
Trusting In the Future
Hinkie trusted in the future. He also believed we create our own future. If we understand our goals, if we set achievable steps for ourselves and follow through, we’ll get where we want to go. For the 76ers, that meant sticking with Hinkie’s method, looking toward the future win rather than the immediate victory.
Not everyone trusted his process, however. We prefer immediate gratification. We want results now. Waiting does not suit us. It’s hard to believe that, in spite of losses, pain, inconvenience, discombobulation, a better outcome will one day arrive. “One day” can seem mighty far away. What if it never comes?
Life is filled with ups and downs. To some degree, we have control over our destiny. If we stick with something long enough, we’ll probably win eventually. Then we can set a new goal and keep going, always seeking that distant prize. Some people love the relentless hustle. Others get tired and learn to appreciate the peace of silence and stillness.
Either way, we make a choice. Yet that choice doesn’t guarantee happiness. It doesn’t guarantee an easy or enviable life. Perhaps that’s where opening our hands comes in, being grateful for what we have, knowing that it will fade, that something new will appear, and we might like it, and we might not, but it will be our life. Can we trust in this?
Hoping for a Better Future
Sometimes I’m surprised by the faith that people have in their future. They may struggle with homelessness, disease, hunger, loneliness, and fear, yet still they cling to life. Their hope is so strong, they just know things will improve. They will heal, their spouse will love them, their mother will embrace them, they will find a beautiful home.
This hope keeps us going. We might kill ourselves otherwise. Even if we don’t trust in the process, we can trust in the possibility of change. Whatever happens, we can always hope. Things will get better soon. A penny can’t land tails-up forever.
Not everyone feels optimistic, though. Some people take their lives. Others keep going, but grudgingly. They’d prefer that God take them home to that place in the sky.
Besides, those who hope for a better future may be deluded. Things don’t always improve. Sometimes they get worse.
Yet hope can make us more content as we struggle through our hellish lives. Faith in the future doesn’t change the reality of our present, but it can make us happier. We can learn to trust in the process while also accepting our lives in the present. We can strive to get stronger or find that perfect home or lover or job, but if we hold our goals loosely, we are often more content. If we focus less on the outcome and more on the journey, if we trust in the process that is life, we may discover that waking every morning and seeing the sun rise above us is enough.
In faith and fondness,
- Wolf, Jason, “76ers GM Sam Hinkie Embraces Patience, Privacy in Rebuilding Effort,” USA Today, July 20, 2014, https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/sixers/2014/07/20/profile-general-manager-sam-hinkie-patience-secrecy-rebuilding/12903303/, accessed 2/24/20.
- Ballard, Chris, “After the Process: Meet Sam Hinkie 2.0,” Sports Illustrated, November 30, 2016, https://www.si.com/nba/2016/11/30/sam-hinkie-after-the-process-philadelphia-76ers, accessed 3/23/20.
- Rappaport, Max, The Definitive History of ‘Trust the Process,’” Bleacher Report, August 23, 2017, https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2729018-the-definitive-history-of-trust-the-process, accessed 3/24/20.
- Fischer, Jake, “Sam Hinkie Left Philadelphia On His Own, After the 76ers Ended His Solo,” Liberty Ballers, April 7, 2016, https://www.libertyballers.com/2016/4/7/11381846/sam-hinkie-philadelphia-76ers-fired-colangelo, accessed 3/28/30.
- Jaffe, Nina and Steve Zeitlin, The Cow of No Color, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998, 104.
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved