Skirting Around the Competition

When we first announced the Student Voices Project in 2013 we were wary of calling it a “writing competition.” Quakers often bristle at that word, especially when it’s used around young people. It suggests an obligation of comparison that we’re simply not comfortable with, given that we believe in the spiritual equality of all people. The Student Voices Project aims to give space for and celebrate the writing of younger voices in our Quaker meeting and school communities. There are no winners and losers, rather “honorees” and “participants,” which feels more truthful to me, anyway. But this year, we asked students to write about the very thing we chose to avoid naming: competition. I realize the irony in this, but couldn’t resist the pitch—and we saw enough richness to explore that we dedicated the whole issue to this often ignored topic.

Language goes a long way with Friends. It seems that our aversion to the competitive way of being largely stems from how related words like “status,” “prestige,” and “success” are batted around in today’s get-ahead culture. The goal is to be better than your peers, no matter the damage done to others and even yourself. Beginning very early on, young people encounter this message in many aspects of their lives—in academics, student government, sports, club activities, and social media, to name just a few. You’ll see evidence of all of these in the 22 student essays we’ve selected for this issue (10 are in the print edition and 12 more are online). Our honorees cite the mindful influence of Quakerism on how they choose to approach a potentially damaging instance of competition. That approach has much to do with an emphasis on joy and connection, an embrace of collaboration, a deep understanding of self-worth, and remembering that Spirit is always there with us. This isn’t an easy task! As honoree James Bradley writes, “Competing to win and yet still representing Quaker values is a fine line to walk . . . Developing the skills to walk this line is what I believe Quakerism is about: shining your Light wherever you go.”

To round out our issue, we didn’t have to look far to find a Quaker with something to say about competition. Jon Watts, our colleague behind the QuakerSpeak lens, contributes an intentional and worshipful perspective on the wonderful world of sports and games. When Jon says, “I will play [any game], and I will try to beat you at it,” he really means it. The past few summers we’ve enjoyed playing a quirky game called soccer tennis (a combination of soccer and volleyball played on a tennis court), and I’ve seen the focused yet generous energy Jon brings to friendly competition, elevating the level of play to spark better performance and mutual respect on both sides of the net. In the end, it really doesn’t matter who wins, right?

But when the stakes are raised and the outcome of a competition feels life changing, how can we guide our young people away from what released minister Mark Pratt-Russum calls “a desperate clamoring for status and attention” and toward “the power and beauty of collaboration?” In his work with Quaker adolescents, he’s found a better way: first provide sanctuary and rest, then tap into the radical potential of Quakerism to spur counter-cultural action in the world. We’re the carriers of a tradition that rejects the status quo; let’s all model that.

See you out on the court and in the world, Friends.

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