Competition and Excellence

I have never enjoyed playing board games or cards. And I have never had much interest in watching competitive sports. The competition involved with such endeavors simply doesn’t interest or inspire me. I am aware that competition can be “friendly” and fun. My grandsons have had very positive experiences in sports. However, with competition, there are invariably winners and losers. It’s easy to fall victim to the victor mentality whereby only those who win are superior and worthy of adulation. No matter how many times we are told that “it’s not winning or losing that matters but how we play the game,” we all want to win. And sometimes the pressure, praise, disappointment, or labelling that may accompany competition can have a negative influence on both winners and losers. In our world, yesterday’s winner can become tomorrow’s loser. Defeat invariably becomes a part of competition. Someone or some group must lose. And in a competitive environment, those who lose can be tempted to think less of themselves. And those who win can fall victim to hubris or become disappointed if they fail to maintain their winning streak.  

Of course, competition is not limited to games and sports. Our capitalist society is built on competition. In fact, we assume that competition makes for better goods, results, markets, and workers. We are brainwashed by the ludicrous and sinful assumption that if we all selfishly seek our own individual welfare, some “invisible hand” works behind the scenes to ensure that everyone benefits. I call this assumption “the original sin” of capitalism. “Trickle-down economics” which dominates our culture has never worked. As we continue to follow this imbecilic path, the rich become richer, the poor become poorer, and the middle class is being squeezed out of existence. Yes, some become very wealthy playing this game. But most people either lose at the game or are not even allowed on the playing field. And as Lily Tomlin observed, even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat. All of us, winners and losers, pay a heavy price for our participation. We lose something of our souls. It was Jesus who said that it profits us nothing if we gain (win) the whole world and lose our souls. His path to greatness was not winning but serving, a path that makes no sense in a world of competition and greed. I challenge anyone to find a single word from Jesus which praises competition and selfishness. 

The Quaker focus on excellence rather than competition has always seemed to me to be a better choice. In the pursuit of excellence, we begin with ourselves not as competitors with others but with a striving to improve ourselves and our results. We compare our present results   to our previous efforts and achievements rather than those of others. Our goal is to improve ourselves, not to compete with and “beat” our fellow humans. We may allow the examples and deeds of others to inspire and inform us in our own efforts, but we do not try to become victors at the cost of others. With this emphasis on excellence, there are no losers. All become winners. We reject the petty game of comparison. We embrace who we are while paradoxically trying to become better than we have been. We become our own role models, our own gentle critics, our own humble fans. And in the process, we are patient with and loving toward ourselves. We don’t have to succeed to be someone. We are already someone precious in the eyes of our Creator. Out of that affirming identity, we try to become better for the sake of all (including ourselves) and in joyful gratitude to the God who made us. 

Of course, a pursuit for excellence can degenerate into an unhealthy type of competition. Our striving for excellence can become an unhealthy and demoralizing search for perfection. We are never satisfied and are tempted to measure our own worth by how much or little we have improved or gained. And in this devotion to excellence in ourselves, it’s possible to become indifferent to and unaware of the struggles and obstacles our fellow humans must endure. Both competition and some pursuits of excellence can become a world of one where only we matter. 

However, if we learn to accept ourselves, our pursuit of excellence need not be demoralizing. If we are guided by the Golden Rule of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, our pursuit will not become another form of selfish egoism. And if we remember that the goal of any healthy society, especially of those who are dedicated to compassion, justice, reconciliation, shalom, and forgiveness (in other words, “the common good”), we can pursue our own excellence in ways which fulfill our original vocation as beings created in the image of God (Genesis 1). That vocation is to be a blessed caretaker of creation and one another. We seek excellence not just for our own sense of self-worth. We seek excellence in the unique areas where our passions, talents, and sense of integrity merge. In that pursuit, we offer to God, the world, and ourselves the unique gifts only we can share.

I would guess that many would judge this pattern of seeking excellence to be naïve and idealistic. Perhaps it is. But in a world connected in so many vital and indispensable ways, our egotistic, self-centered approach to life is not worthy of our identities as children of a God who is defined by compassionate love. For too long, we have cynically assumed that competition and selfishness are the inherent nature of human beings. My understanding of the gospel is that we are created in the image of One whose whole being is guided by self-giving love. In fact, theologians over the centuries have maintained that we can only become truly human by sharing in that divine nature. We are made for love and community. The lure of “the common good” is in our spiritual DNA. Guided by a vision of a “Beloved Community,” our pursuit of that common good through striving for excellence can create a world far more beautiful, just, and fulfilling than the current choice of ruthless competition—a choice which makes it very difficult to “love our neighbor as we love ourselves.” 

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