Friday, August 03, 2012

I Choose Not to Run!

Someone posted a facebook meme the other day with three olympic athletes on a medal stand and President Obama awarding a medal to a fat guy in an easy chair, saying, "Let's spread the wealth around, guys."

I was immediately disgusted, not because I have any particular love for the President, but that people revel in simplicity and straw men and generalizations as a means of understanding and debating serious issues. I realized, this wasn't so much disgust at the cartoon or its position, but at our political and cultural laziness.

Then I paused to ask why specifically I was upset with that particular cartoon.

I realized that if I were to argue with the author I would begin by explaining that it's a poor analogy because the olympics are an athletic competition and life is much different. Then it dawned on me:

A lot of people view life as a competition - thus making it no different than the Olympics. Viewed in those terms, giving somebody something they didn't earn is an absolute affront. Like giving a gold medal to someone in the stands (or giving every kid a trophy). If life is a competition - and one with plenty of unpredictable variables - what we have is vitally important. We have to be constantly striving to get more, earn more, be more - because if we don't, someone else will and we'll fall behind.

What if life isn't a competition? I know, to this point, competition has been the formative element in the development of life on earth - and I suspect that competition will continue to play a key role. But competition is really only important to human beings if continued existence is the goal. Evolutionarily, we compete to maximize our offspring and keep our DNA alive for as long as possible. I hope there's not too much argument that this isn't exactly a fulfilling goal in life.

I've often said, and I very much believe, that whatever the goal, wherever we're going in this life, wherever it is, we get there together or we don't get there at all.

That sentiment seems silly in our competitive, individualistic world. It might be nice to help other people when I've got something to spare or because it makes me feel good - but in the end, when push comes to shove, everyone is on their own, right?

Is that right?

I'm not sure we can answer that question outside our own experience. I'm certain there's plenty of people out there who were in tough spots and needed someone, yet no relief presented itself. Most of us in the West, are raised with this mindset.

The longer I live and the more I experience, the more I've come to believe that we do really need each other - that we're responsible both to and for each other - that we have to get there together to get there at all. If you arrive alone, you didn't get there - wherever "there" happens to be.

I've come to this through faith in Christ. Jesus spoke often of serving the poor, forsaking ourselves, giving freely, and relying on God for the future. The introduction of the Lord's Supper (communion, Eucharist) initiated a communal rite. When Christians gather together to share the bread and cup we are acting out God's plan for God's people: to be one. That's why the Church is called the "Body of Christ;" it is many becoming one.

This isn't purely a Christian concept, though. I believe it is from God, something inherent in humanity. Many peoples and cultures around the world, from many different traditions embrace this concept - that the group is primary and that society works best when individuals willingly submit themselves.

We fight this in the West because we like our freedom and our independence. We should be proud of our individualism. We just haven't seemed to figure out that self-determination is not the ultimate ideal, but a means to an end. Society (the Church, the nation, the family, humanity itself) should be forming individuals who come to recognize the value of sacrificing individualism for the best interests of the group.

This gets us into trouble when we narrow our focus (my country is better than your country; our family is the best; my faith is superior to yours). We need to begin to get our heads around this idea that we're all in life together. Not even just every human being, but the whole of creation. Our momentary victories mean very little if they harm or hinder others.

Life is not a competition. There's nothing wrong with celebrating individual achievement - after all, we are individuals, with the absolute choice to participate in society or to leave it alone - but we have to make sure that achievement doesn't come at a cost to the rest of us.

Olympic athletes dedicate a lot of time and energy to excel at their sports - probably more than a healthy amount. The benefits of doing this for a time are myriad. It helps people learn discipline and determination and gives unique insight into our abilities as a species. At the same time, we have to help our athletes understand the limits of these benefits. Four years or ten years or twenty might be an acceptable amount of time to focus so intensely on one aspect of life - but not a life does it make.

High level athletes struggle to adjust when their athletic participation decreases and the rest of life rushes in. Their equilibrium is thrown off. If they emerge from the competition of sports into a life where competition is the norm, they'll constantly search for new things to dominate and never find a true balance.

The same goes for any of life's pursuits. Individuals are reigned-in, in many different ways - as a means of reminding them that their success, their pursuit, their life, is not the most important thing. Bankers, lawyers, doctors, preachers, business owners, students, janitors, mechanics, and rodeo cowboys all have limits placed upon them for a greater good.

There are those who will argue that these limits are the problem. If all limitation were removed every individual would be free to succeed on their own. My faith and my experience tell me differently. But even if it were true, even if every person on earth won the competition of life, I'm still not sure we've be winners.

There's just something utterly intangible about working together, about caring for others and allowing them to care for you. Life is not a competition; it's all about cooperation.

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