Years ago, in my elementary school teaching days, “cooperative learning” was the newest craze. We taught students to work as a team on specific tasks, encouraging everyone to bring their particular strengths and gifts to the table.
This educational trend was a direct response to the evils of individualism and competition in the classroom. We believed children would be more productive and happy when they worked together cooperatively than when they competed against one another.
Shel Silverstein’s poem, “Hug O’War” best illustrates the idea behind cooperative learning:
I will not play at tug o’war.
I’d rather play at hug o’war,
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs,
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses,
And everyone grins,
And everyone cuddles,
And everyone wins.
But is it true? Can everyone really win? Is it possible (or even desirable) to get rid of all competition from our communities, classrooms, sports fields, and churches?
Competition is everywhere: retail stores compete for the best pricing, neighbours compete for the most attractive landscaping, children compete for the highest grades, families compete for bragging rights after a rousing Scrabble game, and athletes compete for Olympic glory.
But none of this really seems to concern us. We’ve come to accept the drive to win as part of our North American reality. Let’s be honest – most of us will watch the Olympics on TV with Canadian pride and support.
But perhaps Christians should be alarmed by this laissez-faire attitude. Maybe we should take a stand against competition.
Many experts say that competition only causes aggression (think of Cain and Abel), corruption, and lust for worldly success, money, and medals. Some believe that activities that promote winning create anxiety, envy, and low self-esteem – not to mention angry and violent spectators. “Having thoroughly assimilated the attitude that the better I do, the worse you do (and vice versa), we are not open to mutually advantageous agreement or cooperation of any kind,” writes Alfie Kohn in No Contest: The Case Against Competition. And organizations like Streams of Justice warn that large-scale competitions, such as the Olympics, have negative effects on communities (especially the homeless) and the environment.
As Christians, we want to respond in godly ways to things that are harmful or dangerous to our faith and character. With all these negative consequences, competition seems to fall in this category.
But can Jesus – through his Holy Spirit in our lives – transform the arenas of competition? When approached with the right spirit, competition can bring out the best in us. It can awaken latent possibilities and propel us to new levels of excellence.
The key is to be self-disciplined enough to put limits on competition. As Jack Reimer explains in his feature article, The Christian competitor, “while unfettered competition can have damaging effects, it is important to remember that competition within boundaries can have a very positive impact.”
The hard work of creating boundaries (and keeping sinful human tendencies in check) is what Christians are called to do (see, for example, 2 Corinthians 10:5; Romans 8:1–17). Too often, we’re tempted to run away, rather than face challenges head-on. We prefer to disengage ourselves from the world, refusing to enroll our children in competitive sports or avoiding contests of all kinds, rather than allowing ourselves to be transformed by Jesus and, in turn, being agents of transformation in the world.
Despite the best efforts of well-meaning educators and parents, competition isn’t going to disappear from North American society anytime soon. Our task is to discover how to participate in healthy ways – without anger, bitterness, jealousy, put-downs, or pride.
This personal battle, and not any physical rival, may be our greatest opponent.