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  • Reverend James Squire

Competition And The Soul




I have competed my whole life. I like it! It will always be a challenge for me to keep it in check. Even now when I am running and someone younger and in better shape passes me, I speed up, put it in the highest gear that I have, knowing that it is futile, and attempt to keep up and pass the person particularly if I sense that they are as old as I am. I know that I can’ catch them, but I can’t help it. It is in my DNA. I finally was able to get a healthier perspective on this by competing against myself. However, the instinct is still pretty obvious. My endocrinologist informed me that she has never met someone who competed with himself to lower his A1C like I do. I check it every day not for health reasons, but to see if I can get it lower through diet and exercise. I told her that I wanted a T shirt with my A1C number on it.


The title of a popular book when I was studying in New Haven perhaps summarizes my religious life, Are You Running with Me, Jesus? by Malcolm Boyd. I love the notion that Israel literally is translated “to strive with God” and St. Paul’s words in Philipians 3:13-14, that “Brothers and sisters, I do not claim that I have taken hold of it. But one thing I do. Forgetting what is behind and straining to what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God is calling me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” I think you get the picture!


One of the things that it took me time to learn regarding competition is that hyper competition only happens when I am thinking of myself as an individual. It is there but when other people are involved in the competition such as a team, the instinct dramatically changes. When I am with others, I still have the above urge within me but it becomes competition for what is best not for me, but for others. It is an overused metaphor, but there is no I in team. Competitive urges should change direction when you are with a group with a common purpose. Who wants a player that won’t pass the ball to give someone else the better shot? It is not about winning. It is about creating a group, nation, and world that is a good and better place. That also should be about what the Republicans and Democrats should be doing in the campaign season that has begun semi officially on Labor Day. However, it doesn’t seem likely that this will happen, and no one has a magic wand to make it occur. Where is Lincoln when we need him?


Pleasure is found in individual competition. Happiness is found in competition for what is best for a group, nation, world, that changes competition to collaboration to make it a better place for all. It is the ability to sublimate (channel) our individual efforts in working for the group that brings real joy. When you work in a school, you see this all the time because there are real tensions between succeeding as an individual and allowing others to come first. One of my former students, M. Knight Shyamalan, the film producer, said it best when I asked him to come back and address our students. He said what students are always trying to do, (the cognitive dissonance, the tension,) is to stand out and blend in all at the same time. It will always be a tension with us as wanting the best for others and not the best for self. When I met with students after his address in ethics class, they had smiles on their faces and said, “That’s it!” The secret had been revealed but it was liberating that it was stated for all to see. Quite frankly, it is true for teachers as well. Teachers thrive for what is achieved by a class, not a single student, and certainly not for the teacher’s ego. The thrill of teaching is to see what the group can do and to lift up those students who are struggling as seen on tests. The greatest words to hear is that “the class as a whole did well because of all the individual effort you put in and how you helped one another to be their best self.”


What does this have to do with the political campaign season? Everything. It identifies the peril and the possibility that justice and ethics will prevail. It goes to the heart of the matter. Too many are in it for personal gain or party gain. They want to only stand out. But this will be like no other election. Individual motivation and competition for pleasure has to take second place to what is best not for a person, not for party, but for “we the people.”


Democracy depends on this celebration of lifting others up and giving them a chance. Too many are caught up in the personal pleasure of competition that yields profit and power. Trump is the very embodiment of this. The fallout has covered the campaign season. Remember his words, “You are going to get tired of winning!” He didn’t! Everyone has the impulse to compete individually and as a group. Most people at one point in time wanted to stand out and blend in for what was best for something bigger than me.


We started the new college football season. I wince when I hear an announcer say that one team “just doesn’t like the other.” They don’t KNOW each other. Don’t say that. Kids are listening. There isn’t a better symbol than the handshake before the game or for what should occur in our election. Captains of teams shake hands both as individuals and as representatives of the team. They don’t shake hands to say have a good game. They need to be reminded of why they do this. They shake hands because the other team is giving them an opportunity to have the game in the first place. That is at the heart of a Democracy and happiness. I love the title of the “loyal opposition.”


“As we fight for the soul of the nation” we need to be reminded over and over again that we have two parties that need to channel and bring out the best in the other. We need to underscore the ethical nature of the two-party system where each is there to give opportunity to play in this game of democracy for each other. Both are needed. Both will try to stand out and blend in! Both should channel their inner competitive nature for the good of our democracy. It won’t happen until we have greater successes for our nation that can be claimed by both parties competing to be their best selves as individuals for a difference that each makes on the whole. We have lost that. What is important, however, is to remind others of what is needed to get it back. “Individual pleasure must take a back seat to happiness to see our nation thrive. We should have “WE THE PEOPLE” as the heart of each campaign. That gives us a chance to have justice for all, one of the pillars of all ethical thought. If we lose that, we lose everything!


Sometimes our greatest learning can occur in those moments where truth is seen by and through our failures and our lack of ethical action. My hope is that the negative political drama of the fall can wake us up to see the way that things should be done. That is why coaches view tapes after each game to see how a team as individuals and as a group can improve. Why should we expect less of our nation!

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