Over the last few months, I’ve become keenly aware of what a competitive culture we live in. From hearing stories about high school athletes intentionally harming opposing players in order to win to seeing political debates in which candidates will say anything to gain ground against their opponents — there is a huge emphasis placed on being the best. I think it’s a tension that we all feel, even in spheres of our lives that might not seem competitive on the surface.
This competitive spirit creeps up on us in the most innocent-seeming ways. The other day my son was watching a cartoon program geared toward small children about a boy named Joe. In this episode, a Joe’s father had earned a trophy for making the best ice cream in a local competition. Joe loved the trophy and wanted to keep it, but his father told him that he had to earn one for himself. “How do I do that?” asked Joe. His father then explained to him that there had been many people in the ice-cream making competition but only one of them (him!) had made the best ice cream. “To get a trophy you have to be the best at something,” he told his son.
I don’t know what happened after that because I changed the channel. Perhaps you will think I over-reacted. Or that I’m anti-competition. I’m not. Competition can be a great thing — especially when it helps to bring out the best that is within us. However, I think the subtle cultural message that many of us hear from the time we are young is that we have to be the best at something in order to gain approval or to be a person of value. That’s not something I agree with, and it’s not a message I want my son (or any child!) being bombarded with at a tender age. I don’t want him to think that life is about winning trophies. I don’t want him to think that the more trophies he has, the better or more valuable he is — never mind who he has to push or what negative thing he has to say to get them.
More than ingraining in my son the idea that he has to be the best at anything, I want to ingrain in him the idea that he has to be a person of character. A person of character doesn’t win every time because winning isn’t their only goal. A person of character can see that the feelings and overall well-being of others is more important than coming out on top. In fact, sometimes their unselfish pursuit of these other values may keep them from coming out on top — and that’s okay.
And so as I’ve spent so much time reflecting on this in recent months, I guess it’s only fitting that this summer I’ll be sharing stories about sports and competition. Interestingly enough, the common thread in all the sporty stories I’ll be telling is that it’s not about being the biggest, the fastest, or the best — instead, what matters most is being a person of character.
In one of the stories from Africa, Cheetah and Antelope are racing to see who is the fastest. Antelope is winning by a landslide until he crashes, breaking a leg. In that moment, Cheetah has a choice — one we will most likely all be faced with at some point. He can take advantage of his opponent’s misfortune and sprint across the finish line OR he can stop and help the injured antelope. He does the latter and receives a reward. But perhaps the greatest lesson in the story — and one I hope I can teach my son as well as all those with whom I get the chance to share this story and others— is that having character is its own reward.