Competition and Compassion

By Joe Boyd

We live in a competitive culture. We see this at every turn, but are more aware of it every four summers when two cycles converge—the presidential election and the Summer Olympics. Both, in very different ways, show us that deep in our core we can’t help but compete.

Of course, we don’t need these macro-events to know this. We’ve all been to a Little League game or a dancing competition where, seemingly, the kids are having a good time but the parents and coaches are driving the competitive fervor. It can seem we grown-ups spend a lot of our time unconsciously teaching our children that winning matters more than loving people.

Too often, we can’t feel good about ourselves unless there is someone else in a worse position than us. We work for much of life to justify our own greatness only to discover in the end we all are very broken.

A Competitive Culture

I don’t think all competition is bad. I enjoy a rousing game of euchre or Words with Friends as much as the next guy. Some level of competition, in business for instance, makes us better. Thriving to improve one’s self can’t be a bad thing. But . . . being immersed in a competitive culture takes its toll.

I’ve come to believe much of the violence and misunderstanding we face in our turbulent world is because it’s virtually impossible for competition and compassion to coexist in the same heart.

This isn’t something I came to myself. I’ve been profoundly influenced by the teachings of Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest and professor at Notre Dame who left a successful career in academics to devote himself to caring and living with a community of adults with special needs at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Ontario.

In Compassion, a book he coauthored, Nouwen writes about his time at Notre Dame and the obsession with sports competition, specifically with the Fighting Irish football program.

This all-pervasive competition, which reaches into the smallest corners of our relationships, prevents us from entering into full solidarity with each other, and stands in the way of our being compassionate. We prefer to keep compassion on the periphery of our competitive lives. Being compassionate would require giving up dividing lines and relinquishing differences and distinctions. And that would mean losing our identities! This makes it clear why the call to be compassionate is so frightening and evokes such deep resistance.

This fear, which is very real and influences much of our behavior, betrays our deepest illusions: that we can forge our own identities; that we are the collective impressions of our surroundings; that we are the trophies and distinctions we have won. This, indeed, is our greatest illusion. It makes us into competitive people who compulsively cling to our differences and defend them at all cost, even to the point of violence.

Compulsively clinging to our differences and defending them at all costs. Sure sounds like a lot of what our nation and world are reeling from in 2016. But just how do we begin to break down these walls between races, religions, and political factions? Some of them are centuries old. What can we do?

Defeated runnersA Silver Bullet

I believe there actually is a silver bullet. There is one thing that seems to work, when practiced, over time. It’s being present, listening, and sharing our stories. I’ve devoted my life to the idea that stories are powerful . . . and exponentially so when God is invited into our storytelling and story hearing.

This, in part, is why as a blue-blooded American you can watch a remarkable story of courage and humanity about an Olympic marathoner from Kenya and root for her to win. This is why TV networks do bio pieces on the competitors before the Olympic telecasts. You should root for an American, but once you realize a person is more like you than different, labels seem to disappear. Labels dehumanize people. Stories make people real.

This is what we must all do to move past our current issues in the world. Tell more stories. Hear more stories. Ask more questions. Look for what is the same in all of us. Compete less. Love more. It’s what the culture needs more than anything else. And we can be the ones to do it.

Joe Boyd is founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, Cincinnati, Ohio. 

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