Sunday, July 31, 2016

Competition vs. Cooperation

I've always been highly competitive.  If I couldn't be best at something, I tended not to do it.  That's not something I'm proud of, it's just the way it was for me ... graduated number 1 in my high school class, was first chair flutist, won piano competitions, the homeletics award at seminary, etc, etc, etc. Believe it or not, I don't share those things to brag, but to point out a mind set that I'm just beginning, truly at a deep level, to question.  And while opportunities to be that competitive have, in many ways, slimmed, that competitive edge has still continued to be part of me and my experience.  It shows up now in different areas.  One of those is in the playing of games - I play to win, and because of that games are not always as fun for me as they are for other people. Despite the idea that "it's only a game" and "the point is to have fun", it's often, at some level that I usually don't admit, still about winning for me.  The truth is, I don't like losing.  I play these brain fitness games on my computer and if I can't be in the top percentile for people in my age range, I get upset and frustrated.  The point of these games is to improve one's brain fitness.  But even in this area, I play at some level "to win". But tonight I was playing a simple card game with David and found myself challenged to think differently.

In the churches I've served I've emphasized the importance of cooperative, rather than competitive games.  I do this for a variety of reasons.  First, I think there is much to be learned from games that encourage working together rather than competing against.  But additionally, I come from a theology that says there really is enough for everyone.  We don't, therefore, have to grab what we need as quickly as possible so that someone else can't take what is ours. That way of thinking is not helpful.  If we believe there is enough for everyone (or to put it in theological terms, that God gave us all enough, if we only share it) and if we can remember that what enriches you also enriches me, that we are connected, and that therefore to "win" looks like everyone succeeding, our way of walking in the world changes.  We are freed, truly, to love one another without the fear that my care for you will somehow cost me too much.  We are freed to live with the understanding that my supporting you in your gain will actually lift me up as well.  When you don't have enough, none of us do.  But when I can help you get what you need, we all have more of what we need, too.  I believe this, deeply.

But it was only as I watched myself playing this card game this evening that it occurred to me that while I believe this from a theological position, while I trust in it from a place of faith, I don't practice this belief in some very basic, practical ways. I have been gifted (there is no other word for it) to have in my life a few amazing people, truly saintly people, who comprehend the truth of our one-ness so much more deeply than I do.  David is one of those. When he plays a game with me, I have seen him actually work for ME to win, though in these competitive games it means he loses.  I've been aware of him doing this, I've even called him on it, but at the same time, there has been a part of me that hasn't minded so much because it has led to my winning more than I otherwise might. Pathetic, I know.  What is a "win" when the other person is helping you?  Well this evening, I got what it was.  It was a lesson.  A deep and valuable lesson for me.  I was convicted by this at a cellular level as the shock, the reality of the lesson went in deep.

There is a story in which an anthropologist proposed a game to a group of children in a particular African tribe. According to this story, the anthropologist put a basket full of fruit near a tree and told the children that whoever got there first won the sweet fruits. When he told them to run they all took each others hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they had run like that as one could have had all the fruit for himself they said: UBUNTU, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?  UBUNTU meaning: "I am because we are". Whether the story is true or not, there are other cultures which do a better job of teaching sharing and cooperation than we do.  They don't see us as all individuals trying to outclimb or outgain or outwin one another.  They understand that we are all in this together and we either work together or we fall together.  I've studied these cultures some and I see how the truth of this cooperative way of working has deepened their lives so much more than what we, with our individualistic entitlement at the cost of what others have, experience.

Again, I understand this, I believe it.  But when I saw how poorly I was putting this into practice in this card game, I found myself challenged, about half way through the game, with the idea that maybe I needed to change my thinking and my strategy in these games and try to live out what I actually believe.  So I changed my tactic.  Instead of working to win, I decided to see what it felt like to help him win instead.  What would it look like, not to sabbotage my own play, but to support him and do things in my playing that supported the possibility of his winning instead?  What if I put aside the careful strategies I had developed that gave me the upper hand and instead played in such a way that his chances of winning were better?  So I tried it.

To be honest, after 48 years of practicing competition instead of cooperation in games, I didn't find it completely easy to try this new way of playing.  I did it, but found myself fighting with a part of me that still felt, strongly, that if I helped him I might "lose" and that this would hurt.  But I breathed in deep, reassuring that child within that it really would be okay.  After all, this was a card game, and nothing more, right?

But I know, really, that it is much more than a card game.  It is a way of walking through life.  I've tried to practice something different when it has come to big things - sharing finances, food, resources, with those in greater need. But I'm beginning to see that I've gone about this backwards. And that this change in approach needs to start with the simpler, smaller things to make a real inward change in me.

Next time we play, I will try to start the game with this different approach.  And I will see how it feels, perhaps, to celebrate someone else's win, knowing I was part of that. We become the people we are called to be through the practice of loving and caring for the other.  This choice is a small step for me.  But each step, each small choice to be conscious and to do it differently can move us forward. Hopefully I will be able to keep my eyes open through the practices of changing my actions. We will see where it takes us.