We are a nation obsessed with competition.
We keep track of winners and losers like no other people on the face of the earth. Our television networks are filled — some would say cluttered — with all manner of competitions. We keep tabs on the biggest losers, the best and worst dancers, the couple who can travel the quickest, the fastest chef, the best home decorator, the most talented singers and the list goes on, ad nauseam.
Athletic competitions are part of our local addiction. Recent television ratings proved as much — no other city in the nation watched the NCAA men’s basketball tournament with as much fervor and dedication as did the people of Louisville. And still today, as it has been for years now, everywhere you go it’s red versus blue, ‘Cats versus ‘Cards, us versus them.
It’s prevalent in business, this competition mania. Before the start of our most recent “recession,” national news magazines frequently ran profiles and stories about major corporate leaders who were considered financial gurus because they saved their companies millions of dollars.
Most of the savings came by simply putting workers out of jobs, of course, which probably didn’t seem like such a display of brilliance to the people suddenly deprived of a way to make a living. But for a while there the nation’s major corporations competed by laying off people and then seeing who could give their top managers the most money, the biggest private jets, the largest housing bonuses, the most stock options and so on.
The story is similar in politics, where competition rules the land. Civil discourse was long-ago replaced by 20-second sound-bites, bumper-sticker slogans, and mud-slinging that even a pig would disavow. In national, state and local politics there has developed an unwillingness to accept responsibility for anything that goes wrong. As a result, pretty much everything that can go wrong has done just that.
Back in the days when sociology was still a relatively new entry onto university curriculum lists, there was a national poll that asked a simple sociological question: Which is more important, competition or cooperation?
Competition won hands down. But it shouldn’t have.
Think about it: Even at the heart of competition, there has to be an agreement to compete. College athletic teams must agree on scheduled contests. Boxers agree on the date of their bouts. The list could go on and on, but the important thing is that cooperation lies at the heart of our society, at the heart of most things we do. We have to cooperate before we can compete.
And we should remember it.
A few years ago, Archbishop John Michael Miller, who at the time was secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, spoke to a conference of European educators and education ministers in Istanbul, Turkey, and his message still resounds.
Preparing future generations to thrive, to succeed, he said, means educating them to live in our ever-changing, multi-cultural environment. It all depends on respecting differences, he said, and learning to cooperate.
“Living together with our differences requires more than tolerance,” he said. Education must prepare students for “building together a common destiny, striving for cooperation and fraternity and joining together on the road to shape our civilization.”
Young people must be educated, he said, in the values of solidarity and cooperation rather than competition. He called for creating “a climate of dialogue and tranquility” where people can develop positive relationships with others, and — by knowing their own culture and religion — they can “situate themselves serenely in the wider world.”
Now this editorial should not be misunderstood as a screed against all competition. Everybody in this part of the country loves a good ballgame of any sort. And there’s nothing wrong with bragging rites between rivals if expressed in the right spirit. It’s the taking competition to the extreme that we must guard against. It’s allowing the notion of being first, of always winning, to dominate our lives that creates the problem.
It’s the belief that we absolutely have to have the biggest house, the largest SUV, the country club membership, the toys that say — no, scream — “I’m a winner; I’m somehow more valuable, better, than the rest of you,” that’s the evil here. We can’t forget that when we cooperate, good things happen.
We are all of equal value in the eyes of God. We hear messages from him every week — in the form of homilies — that remind us of God’s love.
We don’t ever have to compete for that.