This past weekend, I participated in two competitions: a chocolate-themed 10-mile road race, and my family’s annual Oscar prediction contest. Of course, the Academy Awards themselves are also a competition and are surrounded by a number of unofficial competitions of the “who wore it best?” variety.
I am a competitive person, and specifically, I like to win. This explains why I prefer playing trivia and word games, which I’m good at, over playing card and strategy games, which I’m not. It explains why I was disappointed not to receive the Dissertation of the Year award last year when I should have been happy just to be done forever with being a student. It also explains why, although I’m proud of both of my friends who completed Saturday’s race with me and I’m glad we got to have that experience together, it irks me that one of them finished five minutes (and five places in our age and gender category rankings) ahead of me. I’m not mad at her; I’m mad at me. I should have trained better. I shouldn’t have eaten all those fish and chips the night before. I should have started slower to preserve my stamina. I could have beat her–that’s what I’m still telling myself three days later.
I have this mantra/piece of unsolicited advice that I frequently use on myself and others: “It’s not a competition.” Of course, some things, like races and the Oscars, actually are competitions. But there are a lot of things that we turn into competitions that were never intended to be. Who contributed the most to this project? Who’s the busiest? Who has the most friends? When I was in grad school, the competition that never stopped happening in my head was about who made the smartest-sounding remark in a class discussion. Now I host a similar head-competition: Which professor is the most popular with the students? But that’s just one of my many mental Olympic events. There’s also “Can I run longer than that guy two treadmills down from me?,” “Do I look more physically fit than that woman my age?”, “Whose food looks the nicest at the potluck?”, and “Who knows the most about [insert topic here]?”
Participating in all these competitions all the time is exhausting. It’s also antithetical to the way Jesus lived and asked us to live. When Jesus’ disciples were arguing about which of them would have the highest place in the kingdom of God, he told them that they had to become like little children in order to even enter said kingdom. Here’s something about little children (older children start growing out of this): They’re not good at games, in part because they don’t understand the concept of competition. Another competition I tried to get started this past weekend was a relay race in the 3-year-olds Sunday school class I teach. A very small minority understood what they were supposed to be doing, but most of them just stood there and looked cute at me. And I got annoyed with them for not being competitive enough. True, little kids will fight over toys–they can be a bit greedy–but that’s not the same as competing. They really seem unconcerned about who wins and who’s the best.
I would love to press a reset button and go back to that non-competitive mental mode of childhood. Because I can’t do that, I have to work really hard to be happy for others who can do things better than I can, to be content with who I am and what I’m capable of (not that I shouldn’t strive to improve where I can), and to be like Jesus, who was perfectly happy giving all the credit to his Father.