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.

Everything Works Together – interconnected golden threads

The first few pages of Jerome K Jerome’s story Three Men in a Boat, contain a very funny account by the narrator of how he read a medical text book and discovered to his horror that he had the symptoms of every illness and disease he looked at, apart from a mild form of cholera and housemaid’s knee! It’s amusing because most of us can identify with this sort of hypochondria, especially now that we have the internet, with countless medical sites containing descriptions of diseases and symptoms of illnesses, all of which seem to apply to us, when we read about them.

When we think about the themes of Grace, Guilt, Hope, Mercy, Gratitude, Forgiveness and Generosity covered in some of the blogs posted on this site over the last 18 months, there is probably a similar effect. We’ve got problems with every one of them. We feel as if we are constantly in deficit and are not good enough in any department. What became very clear to me early on, as I tried to write about these things on an individual basis, was that whilst they may appear to be separate, they are in fact part of a much bigger, interconnected whole. golden thread - electron microscopeThe Golden Thread of Jesus’ teaching is many separate strands woven together, each with its own shade and lustre which together make the thread as strong and as golden as it is. A photograph of a golden thread seen through an electron microscope as it is passed through the eye of a needle shows clearly that the thread we thought was a single strand is in fact made up of many finer strands. (no wonder it is difficult to thread a needle!)

In reality however, they are more than just interconnected – they are actually interdependent in the sense that there is a dependence between things. For example, if I provide my dog with food and walks and my dog provides me with devotion and happiness, then my relationship with the dog is one of interdependence. Likewise, the individual strands of the golden thread are interdependent, each strand depending on another, which in turn depends on yet another. Thus, there can be no resolution of guilt without forgiveness, and this in turn requires mercy and compassion. The result of forgiveness is often gratitude. And of course, everything, absolutely everything is connected to and held together by love. So, we don’t have to feel despair about how little we may have of these things or what we must “get better at”. Nor do we need to think that we need to work to develop all of these things or set out a regime to “improve ourselves”. They are not ingredients in a cake or bottles of medicine and lotion that need to be taken daily in precise amounts. If I do X and Y then Z will happen. Such a formula would be all about us being in control, a false pathway. Because whilst it may offer some growth, the reality is that the process is much more of a mystery. If we can try to get the conditions right, then growth will happen, and what is amazing is that they all grow, not just one or another. That’s because they’re interconnected and interdependent, both within ourselves and between each other. So, whilst we do have our part to play, maybe by practising gratitude for 30 days, dealing with our resentments and forgiving or perhaps actively seeking to be more loving, after that it’s not down to us at all. As we so often find in the teachings of Jesus, and central to 12 step recovery, it’s all about letting go and letting God. The important lesson here is that spirituality, and the growth of the individual golden threads in our lives is through relationship rather than knowledge or achievement. And the real wonder is that the process of inner growth happens as we seek to serve and bless those around us, because none of the strands of the golden thread are just about us. This is the mustard seed or the yeast in the bread which Jesus talks about. The things which grow silently and miraculously if we let them, in ourselves and the people and community around us. Which once again brings us back to the Kingdom of Heaven, where all things connect, and everything works together for good.

I am still far from being what I want to be, but with God’s help I shall succeed. Vincent Van Gogh

I think we’d like life to be like a train…..but it turns out to be a sailboat. Barbara Brown Taylor

Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come. Henri Nouwen

Through my years of darkness, some spark of spirit remained in me, helped me survive until I found my way into A.A. Then, nurtured by the program, that inner spirit grew, deepened, until it filled the emptiness I had so long felt inside. Step by step I moved to a spiritual awaking. Step by step I cleared up the past and got on with the present. Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition

Serving Others – humility and sacrifice

Recently I heard a news report about a politician who was standing down from office. “He has served his community for more than thirty years”, the reporter said. It set me to thinking about service and what it really means, because whatever contribution politicians make, service is not a word I associate with an activity so based around the desire for and wielding of power. Many of the “services” we now receive are delivered by large organisations with rigid hierarchical power structures for the thousands of people they employ to “serve” us, be they health, military, police, national, regional or local government. Whilst as institutions they do of course serve our needs for health, safety, protection, amenities and so on, true service and servanthood is something very different. It’s marked by humility, self-sacrifice, disregard for power, preferring the interests of the other, generosity and self-effacement. There are undoubtedly some individuals in the large service organisations who do serve in this way, but the majority appear to do it primarily for the paycheque, the power, the prestige or for a combination of these things.

Jesus was truly revolutionary in his approach to power and authority. Though servant leadership is a term that has only been used in the last 50 years or so, Jesus introduced his followers to the principles two thousand years ago. It was incredibly radical. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” (Matthew 20 26-28). Jesus’s words were lived out in his life, where he consistently expended himself for others, but perhaps his notion of service is most clearly displayed in his washing of the disciples’ feet on one occasion shortly before his death. This was a menial, despised job, not something for a leader, let alone a king. And he washed the feet of all of his disciples, including Judas who was about to betray him.  Followers of Jesus should, as he said, seek to serve people and not lord it over them. Service is never about power, pride or status.

Service is very important in 12 step recovery. The early pioneers understood the paradox within the teachings of Jesus that “we must give it away if we are to keep it”. All within fellowships are there to serve, recognising that service is essential to recovery. The Twenty-Four Hours a Day book author likens recovery without service to the Dead Sea. It is service which keeps us fresh and alive. And service, as Bill W says, is “anything whatever that helps us to reach a fellow sufferer — ranging all the way from the Twelfth Step itself to a ten-cent phone call and a cup of coffee.” Serving is a way of looking beyond our ego driven selves to consider the needs and struggles of others, so teaching us a different way of living.

One of the many amazing things about the 12 step programme is the way in which it operates with the minimum of power – positions are temporary and always done as a service to help others and to help one’s own recovery. As Tradition Nine says, “We create Service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve”. In A.A. groups, these trusted servants are sometimes called “officers” and usually are chosen by the group for limited terms of service. Tradition Two says, “Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” These service positions may have titles. But titles in A.A. do not bring power or status, they simply describe roles and responsibilities. Chairing a 12 step meeting is both a service opportunity and a unique chance to practice the principles learnt in A.A, especially one of humility. It’s been said that most mistakes made by a chairperson arise from a false feeling of ego, power or control which simply shows that they have more to learn about humility.

Given that Jesus declared that the path to greatness lies in humble service, it is surprising how consistently the Christian church is based upon positions of power and authority and how many individuals within the church have been caught up in the pursuit of this power. All too often we see signs of abuse of power, with pride in positions of status and prestige clothed in false humility. It is remarkable that the heady attraction of power and the ever-present pitfalls from our personal weaknesses have been so consistently disregarded, given that Christianity in all its forms is based on a common belief in our human fallibility and sinfulness. Churches lack the built-in safeguards which the founders of A.A. inspirationally put in place for their meetings and structure. As a result, whereas 12 step organisations and their overall structures are upside down, with ultimate responsibility and final authority for services residing with the groups, the church is a traditional pyramid structure with power generally resting at the top. Ironic really, because Jesus heavily criticised the religious power pyramid of his time and the Kingdom of Heaven he spoke of, is very much an upside down, topsy turvy model of living.

As they say, it is what it is, so as followers of Jesus we have to work with what we’ve got and the way that things are. Our job is to put into practice the things he taught, loving our neighbour as ourselves, so we serve without expecting anything in return whether that be awareness, reward or recompense. As Jesus showed too, we serve those who are opposed to us as well as those who do not value or appreciate what we do. We need to be very, very wary of power and find some way to build in our own personal checks and safeguards if we are in positions of power and prestige. Hard as all of this may be, we must trust that as we do seek to serve with genuine humility and as we show love through this service, it creates ripples which extend far beyond us. “To keep it you have to give it away,” and by giving of ourselves we not only advance the Kingdom of God, but somehow, miraculously, we are fed and become full ourselves.

Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. Jesus of Nazareth

The life of a man consists not in seeing visions and in dreaming dreams, but in active charity and in willing service. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy. Mahatma Gandhi

Joy can only be real if people look upon their life as a service and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness. Leo Tolstoy

What brings you closer to God is being in service to others. Any religion or spiritual way of life will indicate that service to others will lead to a connection with a higher power.  Anonymous

How can I be useful, of what service can I be? There is something inside me, what can it be? Vincent Van Gogh