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.

10 thoughts on “The Invisible Damage of Competition

  1. What a wonderful article! The stories made it really come alive for me. The one about the man whose teacher told him that he could stand up with the other kids, but instructed, “Please do not sing. Just mouth the words,” resonated with me. My father was reluctant to sing and was put in front of the class and told to sing by himself. He refused and was left with a lifelong lack of connection to music.

    There was no music in my house growing up, only getting exposed in high school through my mother’s watching “Great Music from Chicago”. My parents were both interested in literature, and my mother in art, so the artistic side was not missing for me, but I think it was blunted, and today it is a challenge for me to truly deeply connect to the arts through a foundation I created in memory of my wife who was an artist.

    Thoughtless acts can reach across through time. We all need to be very mindful of the impact of things we say or do.

  2. I think the challenge is to define for ourselves whether or not we are a winner. Each of us is unique with gifts we choose to share. Whether we can sing or not. Kick a soccer ball or not. Hit a baseball or not. Solve a multivariable equation or not. Ride a horse or not. None of these are important unless we make them so. What I learned from my growing up experience of being asked not to sing as my voice was changing and not controllable was that it was OK to be different and to participate as my gifts allowed. Wearing glasses and not having adequate hand-eye coordination limited my success in team sports. But I could excel in track. Perhaps culture has established benchmarks for winners. But we don’t have to accept them. I know in my heart I’m a winner. And it is validated everyday by my family and friends and Friends.

  3. The normative perspective on competition is indeed harmful to human beings. It need not be so. Removing competition is one solution, and has a valuable place in our development at all ages. Exploration widens our perspectives and is under-valued at all ages in our society.

    Using competition to enhance performance where competition is a measuring stick of performance (not the worth of the individual, of course, as the very concept of human worth as measurable is invalid) also has its place.

    In an old version (from the ’60’s) version of Mao’s Little Red Book was a quote: “In life, there is no such thing as failure. There are only experiments from which we learn to do differently.”

    I had already adopted that perspective in sports by the time I was in high school. I loved nothing more than playing basketball or tennis with someone better than I (which didn’t take much…). When they made a great move on me I would note it, as in “wow, great shot!” And I would get a chance to learn.

    From that perspective I found competition instructive, not destructive. Small potatoes example: we would not have the “cross-over dribble, step-back 3 point shot” created by Steph Curry without competition.

    Competition is not always the enemy of collaboration, either. In large organizations (Amazon and SpaceX are two) they will often have two teams working on identical projects. As the work progresses all work is shared, so that the best parts end up getting built into both projects. Where one team produces consistently better results, forward-looking organizations will analyze what led to the differences. Experiments, from which to learn.

    The societal perspective on competition is, as in many issues, focused on the individual as the cause of results. As Friends, we know we are most effective when we are “in Spirit” and that at those moments we are not in charge. Perhaps that would be our best target for intervention with regard to the destructive effects of competition. And yes, I do mean making the norm for society the everyday mysticism (Merton’s term) that is available to all. What goal could be more Quaker?

    Thanks to the author for spurring thoughts. Competition as embraced normatively is incredibly destructive, and deserves our attention.

    Hank Fay

  4. I’m sorry Friend, but this article does not speak to my condition. And, I certainly respect your right to put forward a different and competing narrative to mine.

    I consider myself a joyful embracer of competition. Although I acknowledge it too can have a dark side.

    Nevertheless, as a researcher and admirer of modern representative democracy, I’m aware that competitive sport is in many ways a foundation for a culture of democratic values. The experience and learning of how to “lose gracefully” is an important lesson we all need to receive.

    I consider myself very competitive, and yet know experientially “that all of life is sacred, that we are all children of the Light, that we are all gifted”. Perhaps Walt Whitman sums it up best in his poem ‘Song for myself’, where he writes:

    Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself;
    (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

    I believe the word “large” appears 12 times in that poem. For me, it’s one of the burdens, and one of the blessings, of being human.

    If we are to live in the so-called “age of reason”, ipso facto we must live in the age of contention. For reason alone can give us opposing, and yet still valid answers.

    What does love require of us? Personally, I believe it requires of us to compete (where necessary or appropriate) joyfully, fairly and peacefully.

    West Australian Regional Meeting
    Australian Yearly Meeting

  5. May 20, 2019 9:13p

    San Luis Obispo, California

    Hi Mary Jo, I am so glad to hear from you again! Thanks for this wonderful article! I am very glad you are the new clerk of Earth Care Witness! We need your work, and we all have to work, too to save our home!
    Gay Howard, Central Coast Meeting, Pacific YM

  6. Whose to blame? Our culture is a mess. Who can fix it? The problems of the world are beyond our capacity to address them. The pain and suffering are too huge to even begin to heal. And yet, we sit in our silent circles each Firstday. We don’t say prayers. We don’t listen to a sermon. We simply listen with our hearts, minds for the spirit that speaks with a still small voice. And, for those moments all is well again. And we come away knowing that all will be well again. All will be well again, my friend.

  7. I am still perplexed by the title and perhaps it is because there is another way to tell the story. I “played” sports from the time I can remember until my back, and my wife, told me “no more.” I earned my livelihood with the YMCA, as an instructor, coach, and administrator for 35 years. I was a tall, skinny kid with decent hand-eye coordination and speed but not a whole lot of strength. But I was blessed from my first structured sports activity to have coaches that encouraged all of us and rewarded all of us on effort and doing better than we did yesterday. I was skilled enough to be the first swimmer in WV to swim a sub 1 minute in the 100 yard breaststroke, invited by the Orioles and Dodgers to try-outs, and played collegiate and semi-pro volleyball. In my late twenties there was an article in Esquire magazine and, although, I don’t remember the title dealt with “loving to win vs hating to lose.” I realized that my coaches had instilled in me the love to win rather than hating to lose. Winning is the knowledge that you have done your best, that there is no doubt you prepared and persevered to the very limit of your ability. And to this day I rejoice in performing to the best of my ability. It does not matter if someone performed at a higher level than me, as long as I recognized that at that moment of time I did my best. The other end of the spectrum is hating to lose. Not having the tools to recognize effort and the joy of participating and rather evaluating success by “beating” some one. And so competition, of and by itself, is neither good nor evil, it just is. What matters is how we use it. I was blessed to have the opportunity to coach hundreds of kids in the sport of swimming. We had a “Wall of Fame” where we posted every swimmer’s seasonal goals. They created three goals each for performance in body, mind, and spirit. They were taught that “ranking” was not a goal and how to self-evaluate. I reviewed these goals and evaluations with every swimmer on a monthly basis – and more often than not showed them how they were doing better that they perceived. Every swimmer had one specific task to concentrate on during their race. It might be successful turns, breathing rate, stroke rate, etc. Immediately after their event we reviewed that task. Did they meet it? Great! If they didn’t, how can WE get there? They learned to be winners. About this time the Y implemented “Everybody Plays, Everybody Wins.” It was a good start, and very controversial, but its shortcoming was that it allowed “win” to be interpreted as a ranking maintaining its status quo which I believe Mary Jo Klingel is alluding to. I recall many times discussing with my colleagues what we could accomplish coaching kids if we could separate them from their parents during practice and games! Several years later I was asked to start a YMCA from scratch. I hired a youth sports director and together we formatted a new approach. The Y had come up with a “values” incorporation concept of “Caring, Honesty, Respect, and Responsibility,” in all programs. So we trained all of our coaches how to teach these values FIRST and then to teach the skills. We also created a way for parents to be involved in a positive way and how to transfer the values and skills at home. Not every coach and not every parent embraced this, but there was enough that did so that the program flourished. And by the third season,not only had the program grown from 60 to more than 300, but I had a County Commissioner tell me she incorporated our “values circle” with her kids at home to great success. I have observed enough kids, both formally and informally, to see that competition exists. It is how we interpret and coach winning that makes the difference. And we are ALL Winners!

  8. Great message! The reality is about 99% of the time humans have lived on the earth human relationships were built around cooperation and sharing rather than competition. These cultures also lacked warfare.

    During my years teaching anthropology and peace & conflict studies, I have been struck at the strong resistance to rethinking cultural assumptions that view human nature as inherently violent, warlike, and competitive.

    As Kenneth Boulding has said, “if something exists, it must be possible.”

  9. Like the football tale —- Essentially the same tale, only less crudely put, as Welsh poet’s English language poem ‘Tristes Tropiques’

  10. Mary Jo, thanks for your article!
    I for one, understood your title well.

    You may be aware that I offered a workshop called “Collaborative Strategies for resolving Conflicts” at Southeastern Yearly Meeting’s annual gathering this year.

    Sometimes the damage of competition is invisible even to those who are damaged by it.
    Competition creates winners and losers,and collaboration aims to let everyone win.
    We need to keep working to change competitive situations into collaborative situations.

    Collaboration requires people who are willing to collaborate, once they realize that collaboration is an option.

    The first and most important step in collaborative conflict resolution, and the most often neglected step, is taking tie time to agree on a mutually acceptable definition of the conflict.

    Only then can we: explore alternative solutions, choose a solution to try together, try the solution, and evaluate the results.
    The process can work internationally as well as inter-personally.

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