The Invisible Damage of Competition

It seems at first glance that what we might say about competition is self-evident. We compete and that is a good thing. There are winners and there are losers, and it’s the winners we admire. That is our accepted cultural narrative: what we are trained to believe.

It is as though, in our culture’s story, we are all running up a huge staircase. Getting to the top is what we are supposed to achieve, and never mind the damage that is done.

I was involved in the collateral damage of competition. I was a dreamy, uncoordinated kid who gave up on all the ways that kids are supposed to like to play. I was the kid who stood against the wall at recess and watched the other kids play. I remember deciding in sixth grade that I would rather be popular than smart, so I stopped answering any of the teacher’s questions. I was aware that being different meant being a loser, and that it was shameful. I don’t remember anyone telling me that I was a loser; I just knew it. I absorbed it from the stories all around me.

We are all vulnerable to absorbing our cultural narratives. A friend of mine wanted to be in his grade school chorus. His teacher told him that he could stand up with the other kids, but instructed, “Please do not sing. Just mouth the words.” Many decades later, he still does not sing. He loves music, but he believes he can’t sing, that he is “just too much of a loser” to make a joyful noise. What a loss.

Sometimes the damaging narrative is directly taught, while other times it is nonverbally communicated. It is all around us. How big is your house? What does your body look like? What kind of car do you drive? What brands of clothing do you wear? Do you own a Rolex? Answer these and you will know your place on the winner-loser moving sidewalk of our culture. You will know that you can reach the top or learn that you are not worth as much as the winners.

So many kids simply don’t fit in. I know a man who did not fit in and did not have verbal skills in school. He did not particularly care if he was compliant in class, and he often wandered around focused on his own thoughts. By high school, it was hopeless and he dropped out. His great strength was his skill with hands-on problem solving. He is the guy in the garage with the old truck, and you can be sure he will get it running. If you want to work on the truck with him you are most welcome. He loves company and loves to talk, especially about old trucks. When he is in a garage with a friend and an old truck, the winner-loser scale no longer hurts him, but the early damage was done.

Maybe it is time to rewrite the story of competition.

All of our testimonies, but especially community and equality, ask us to move beyond the cultural competition that deeply separates us.

Where do Quakers fit into this cultural narrative? I have often thought Friends are bicultural. We live in American culture, yet our Quakerism gives us the gift of another way to tell the story. Our foundation belief (there is that of the Light in all) is the basis for another kind of culture: one where we strive to honor differences and deal tenderly with all who are in our meetings. All of our testimonies, but especially community and equality, ask us to move beyond the cultural competition that deeply separates us.

We walk in the story of the Light-in-all in so many ways, big and small. The meeting where I am an attender participates in a program called Room at the Inn where we offer hospitality to five or six homeless men for one night and feed them dinner and breakfast. Several of the men have told me how much they appreciate a hot meal with all the helpings they can eat, and even dessert, but what they really appreciate is having a room where they can close the door. Simple privacy.

Last time we prepared to host Room at the Inn, I noticed a woman in the meeting making up one of the beds; her children, about four and six, were helping her. Her little girl, the older child, was putting a pillowcase on a pillow. As I watched them, I realized that it’s normal for these kids to make a bed for a homeless man; they want these men to have a safe place to sleep and prepare it for them. Friends at the meeting simply want the men to have what they need, no questions asked. For those children, kindness is familiar. It is gently instilled in them: it is the world that they know. For the adults in the meeting, it is a choice and one that we agree to willingly.

How we create winners and losers in our culture through competition has another important aspect. We all live in bodies, and we live better when we move and play and dance. Kids who grow up believing they can’t move well enough to be on a team lose so much. They lose the joy and freedom of movement and the discovery of movements that are unique to them. I remember summer nights as a child when my dad would set up a badminton net, and we would play until dark. I remember the exquisite joy of hitting the birdie so high that even my father and my sister could not get it. I wasn’t in the gym and I wasn’t competing. I was simply in my body, and I was alive. Then the fireflies would come out, and I would smell all the earth smells of a summer evening. It was a gift to be alive.

Our narrative of competition objectifies those people who do not fit the prevailing societal image of superiority. Perhaps that is part of the mindset that enables us to objectify this amazing planet and to act like all its beauty and resources exist to use as we wish. We act as if they are replaceable. The glaciers; the rain forests; the magnificent animals, large and small—we do not see that gone means gone forever. We are like children who break a toy and just expect to be given another one.

Perhaps we are ready to face the damage done in a competitive culture of winners and losers, and to admit that the race to the top hurts us all.

It is time to consciously welcome a new narrative: one that states that all of life is sacred, that we are all children of the Light, that we are all gifted.

I will add two more stories as possible ways that we can shape a new narrative.

The first one is from the Gospel of Thomas. I put a bit of my own spin on it, by picturing a tired and maybe even a slightly crabby Jesus, one with sore feet from so much walking. The disciples want to engage him again, and ask, “Lord, what is the sign of the Father in us?” In my version, patience battles with irritation, and Jesus is finally able to say, “Movement and rest.” How exquisitely simple. There is nothing to win or lose, just moments of movement and moments of rest.

My second story of the new narrative is a quote from Thomas Hartmann’s book, Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight:

When European missionaries taught Australian Aborigine hunter-gatherers how to play football, the children played until both sides had equal scores: that was when the game was over in their minds. The missionaries worked for more than a year to convince the children that there should be winners and losers. The children lived in a matrilineal society that valued cooperation. The Englishmen came from a patriarchal society that values domination.

Perhaps we are ready to face the damage done in a competitive culture of winners and losers, and to admit that the race to the top hurts us all and lays the groundwork for the destruction of our planet. Perhaps it is time to sit in circles instead, where we can see one another and see the many ways that we each individually shine with our own Light.

Mary Jo Klingel

Mary Jo Klingel has been a Friend for about 20 years and attends Charlotte (N.C.) Meeting. She is the new clerk of Quaker Earthcare Witness. She is sustained by her leading to dig deeper, understand more clearly, and be led by the Light.

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