Competition or Co-operation?

“I’m really grateful for one thing,” my brother said, “Dad taught us to be competitive and go in hard.” We were talking about my father and our upbringing, not long after his death. Even if this statement about him was true outside of the board games we used to play, his contribution was still only a small part of the big lie we are all told many times over, that life is about competing with other people and it pays to be ruthless in doing so. It is only in recent years that I have begun to see this lie for what it is, although changing the way I live is taking a whole lot longer.

From the start I want it to be clear that I’m not talking about winning at school sports, a game of monopoly or pool or even getting a job or wanting the football team you follow to win every match. Neither am I suggesting that wanting to achieve and excel at the things we do as individuals and in groups is wrong. What I am doing is kicking back against idea that absolutely everything in life is about competition and that this is an inevitable part of the evolutionary process. In other words, the notion that we are hard-wired to be competitive and competition is just another way of describing the survival of the fittest. Really? So the rush to get a seat on a crowded train or to be at the front of the dash into a store on the first day of the sales or to stockpile sugar, pasta, or flour is simply our need to provide for ourselves and those we care for? Even if there is a grain of truth in this, it quickly becomes a very unhealthy belief system to operate by, because the reality is that if I get what I want, this invariable results in someone else having less – no seat on the train, empty supermarket shelves and so on. The idea of competition and its alleged evolutionary source can so easily be an excuse or rationalisation for our selfish, greedy behaviour. What’s true for individuals is true for nations too. The current UK government has recently cut its overseas aid budget because it says the UK needs those resources more than other much poorer countries. When it’s got much richer, it will increase its aid budget again. Indeed.

Self-interest dressed up as competition could be seen in the subsistence farming economy of Jesus’s time – if a person accumulated crops in his barn and needed to build bigger barns to hold the grain then it was at the expense of others who had little or went without. No wonder Jesus’s parables often touched on this important area of life. His teachings suggest that we are meant to be in co-operation with God and with one another, not in competition, because there is plenty to go around. As beings created in God’s image, we have rationality and moral principles as our guide, not just survival and reproduction instincts. The early church at least was very much a community which had sharing and caring as its hallmark, following in the way of Jesus. It’s also a key element of recovery –we even talk about the recovery community. It’s not a competition about whose recovery is better or who is a better follower of Jesus.  In the latter case we are all poor at it and the whole point about grace and mercy is that they are freely given to all of us, not just those who earn it or achieve a certain level of merit. And how do we respond to this grace? We serve one another, as Jesus taught us to do and showed in his life as a Servant Leader.

I always remember being moved by the slightly corny yet profound school assembly story of heaven and hell. Both were places with plenty of food but people could only eat using six-foot-long spoons. In hell everyone went hungry because they could not get the food into their mouths but in heaven everyone was full because they fed each other. In 12 step recovery this idea of working together and being non-competitive is perfectly illustrated by the complete absence of hierarchy and positions of status. The emphasis on service is very strong – again the model of Jesus as servant leader, and his counter-intuitive message that to become great we must become the least and the servant of all.

Pushing ourselves and having a competitive spirit isn’t a bad thing but the real lie is that this is what defines us as people. It’s even been said that extreme acts of heroism or altruism are really just self-serving actions, a cynical view of someone’s self-sacrificial act of giving and love for another. Love is what make us truly human and that is what both Jesus’ teachings and 12 step recovery are both about – making us more fully who we are meant to be and less the isolated, fearful, addicted people that the competitive world creates and fuels.

Christmas is a reminder that Immanuel is God with us, not God against us or watching us or even letting us sort it out for ourselves. God is with us, co-operating, working together to make the Kingdom of God a reality, not just seasonal bonhomie but good will to all, now and always.

2 thoughts on “Competition or Co-operation?

  1. Thanks for the great post Ollie and for such an honest reflection. It’s such an important theme and just so easy to go along in life not seeing how prevalent and toxic it is (although I have to say I do have many issues with the competitive underpinnings of the schooling system!). Your blog reminded me of story i heard in a mindfulness meditation focusing on the term “Muditā” (means joy; especially sympathetic or vicarious joy, or the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being). I cant remember the story exactly but it’s something like this: A western researcher was exploring how children in a remote and poor country responded under certain conditions when offered sweets. The researcher put the sweets where they could be easily reached in a bag hanging on a tree. He then asked the children to line up some distance from the tree, race style, and said “the first of you to get to the sweets is the winner and can have them all! Ready, go!” To the researchers surprise, the children immediately all joined hands and ran together to the tree in shrieks of delight, whereupon reaching the bag shared the sweets between themselves in great excitement. When the researcher asked them why they hadn’t pursued the sweets individually they simply said that if one person got them all, the others wouldn’t get any.

    Sorry for the long message! Thanks again for the blog, they’re great, and we all really enjoy them here. Sarah.

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    1. Hi Sarah. Great story. It shows how much competition and “self” is taught. Even if parents work hard not to create this in thier children, the minute they get into school it’s drilled into them. Its a difficult area – you and I both like to compete in sports but that’s different, not least because I think we both ended up doing activities where you compete against yourself rather than other people.
      Thanks as ever for your encouragement. O

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