In Praise of Competition

“Competition” is a bad word to most spiritual teachers and theologians. Especially in feminist, womanist, and mujerista theology, competition is seen as a male, patriarchal value that leads to battle, destruction and oppression. And competitive impulses certainly can lead to negative consequences. Collaboration and cooperation, on the other hand, are seen as more loving and more divine in nature. (The three “persons” of the Trinity are said to be fully equal in sharing divinity, never competing with one another.) This strikes many theologians as a more feminine way of being, as well. They claim that women prefer to collaborate, and men prefer to work alone and to compete for supremacy.

Anyone who thinks women are cooperative and not competitive have not spent much time with girls or women. Whether on the playing fields, in classrooms, in the workplace, or in politics, women strive to excel, and sometimes in ways that require someone else to lose. I think women are wonderful at collaborating and cooperating, but we certainly relish competition at times.

Similarly, people who think men are not naturally good at collaborating and cooperating are ignoring the many obvious examples of men collaborating in productive and joyful ways. In my Silicon Valley days (where almost all the engineers were men), men collaborated in groups all the time: sharing ideas, solving coding problems together, rejoicing at a colleague’s fixing of a bug, and so on. And in men’s professional sports competitions, it’s the teams whose members collaborate really well that ultimately triumph.

So I hope we can agree that competition is not inherently masculine, and collaboration and cooperation are not inherently feminine. Men and women are equally capable of all three.

With that gender issue set aside, I still wonder why competition is denigrated so much in spiritual writing.

I was prompted to think about this, strangely enough, after the funeral of a longtime church member. She was a peace activist, a caretaker of the poor, a woman who questioned the privileges of her own relative wealth and strove to live a radically Christian life. She was clearly beloved. As I was listening to testimonials about her at the memorial service, I was thinking, “Wow. What a great life. I want to lead such a life.”

I had a sense that my life, as I have lived it so far, paled in comparison to hers. That is essentially a competitive perception. I measured myself against her and found myself wanting. I often feel the same way when I read descriptions of people in Holy Women, Holy Men, a book published by the Episcopal Church a few years ago. I often think, “Why haven’t I done anything with my life?”

This is no different from what I often do as a runner: I see someone ahead of me on a path, and I want to see if I can run as fast as them, or perhaps overtake them. Or I hear someone coming up behind me, and I don’t want them to pass me, so I quicken my stride to see if I can stay ahead. I use the other runners as a way to spur myself to run faster. My proudest day as a runner (many years ago, but still) was when some very tall and fit man suddenly appeared next to me and said, ‘I’ve been trying to catch you for the last half-mile.” I didn’t even know someone was competing with me, and yet I found his comment very motivating and affirming.

Competition can spur us to do better than we were doing before. In fact, the Latin root of “competition” means “to meet, to come together.” lists two synonyms for competition: “1. emulation;  2. struggle.”

Exactly. In spiritual pursuits, we often emulate teachers or holy people. Christians in particular seek to imitate Christ. We emulate Christ to meet Christ, to come together with Christ and one another. Christ is a model, a measuring stick against which we hold ourselves. Inevitably, we find ourselves lacking. Or we compare ourselves to saints, or to a beloved church member who has just died, and we sense the distance between us and them and want to catch up.

In any case, this often leads to struggle as we try to reshape our lives to emulate others. To catch up to those runners in front of us, we will have to get in shape: do hill runs and sprints, add some cross-training, stretch longer.

Even in less overtly spiritual pursuits, competition can be a virtue. We want to ski as well as our friends, so we practice more and become stronger, safer skiers. We want to play Rachmaninoff as well as that kid we heard play at a school concert, so we double our practice time. We want our software company to survive against Microsoft, so we copy their software package’s features and add some additional ones to gain customers.

We emulate. We struggle.

Unhealthy competitive impulses are bound to arise amidst desires to emulate goodness. We want to appear better than someone or something, or we want more of some scarce resources than others have. These types of competition are dangerous, as they have nothing to do with coming together in the positive sense and far more to do with gaining something at the expense of others. Sometimes it is necessary for survival, but it is ugly. It comes from a sense of scarcity rather than abundance.

Competition that seeks to meet some standard, however, can be a virtue if we wish equal success and happiness to others as well. I can compete with my previous race times by chasing down other runners without wishing their performance diminished in any way.

And yes, I can root for the San Francisco Giants without desiring the failure of any other team–unless, of course, they are playing the Giants. Hey, I’m no saint when it comes to baseball.

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