I like to win. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that I hate to lose. Regardless of what takes precedence, I’ve left behind a long history of holes in walls, Nintendo power cords yanked from the wall, thrown remote controls, and outstanding grudges. I’m a relatively peaceful person, but nothing turns me into the Incredible Hulk like a good competition.
My passion to win was imparted to me at an early age—possibly through my mom’s umbilical cord. Some families can play games with each other and have fun, though that’s a mystery. No one cries or flips over a table? Sounds boring. I learned to leave it all on the Monopoly board—Boardwalk or bust.
Competitions are a zero sum game. Look, there’s a scoreboard. Why do we keep score if it’s about effort? Unfortunately, I’ve internalized the reverse—why play if we’re not keeping score? Play is intrinsically good and it’s important to have fun, but it’s also true that winning increases my chances of having fun. I blame it on dopamine and genetics.
My extended family visited us one Christmas to celebrate Jesus and also to confirm who was the best at World Cup ’94 on Super Nintendo. My brother and I had adequate time to hone our digital soccer skills enough to beat our uncles and cousins. But after one day of losing, my uncle stayed up all night until he found a glitch in the game that supplied him a goal with every shot. The next day he was merciless.
My daughter, Eden, has inherited our original sin. She turns everything into a competition: cars at a stoplight, the ladder at the playground, ballet class (yes, it’s possible). Never mind that her competitors haven’t been informed of the contest. Their ignorance makes it easier to win.
We participated in a family 5-k last weekend, which I realize makes us look like ‘one of those’ annoying families that also eats avocado toast. After half of a mile Eden threw herself on the asphalt because we were losing to a lot of people, many of whom appeared very un-athletic. I told her that losing was ok because we’re trying our best. I didn’t believe it. We passed a few people and she called them ‘slow pokes’ under her breath. She is three years old. What can I say? It’s in our blood.
I don’t apologize for our family foible; maybe it’s an evolutionary advantage. Human beings are wired for self-preservation, after all, and it’s possible that our family wired a little tighter. I hope to raise a strong girl who’s not afraid to take on a boy in a footrace and later, challenge one for a job. Work hard, train long, be passionate. Take pride in hard-fought wins because our country doesn’t need more self-deprecating women. But squash out the competitive spirit and you might also repress intrinsic goods like passion and perseverance, which can be mobilized for goodness.
Paul uses competitive imagery to describe the Christian life: running a race, fighting the good fight, and training in righteousness. Not to mention he also tells the Corinthians that he beats his body to make it his slave, which is some intense training for Jesus. Paul calls the Philippians his joy and crown, which is an image of victory. He tells them that he strains forward to what lies ahead and pressed on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call.
In other words, competition finds a better shape with the right virtues and a proper finish line. The Latin etymology reminds us that the word literally means to ‘strive together’. What if I treated Christianity with the urgency of a race that might be lost? Worked out generosity like my biceps? Called my community my crown and joy?
Unfortunately, most Christians are satisfied with a participation medal.
On the other hand, I know the shadow side of competition all too well. Losing is a form of dying. When the basketball rolls around the rim during the last second of a basketball game tempting a win or loss, we hang in the balance between life and death, heart beating erratically and hands shaking until the basketball gods make the final call.i Is it possible to go through the seven stages of grief over a basketball game? Yes. It’s the death of the season and a relationship to a team. When Duke loses I blame the referees, sleep late, wake up in denial, and ultimately curse the Tarheels.
If you’re not careful, a loss can be the death of your identity. That same little voice that creeps in to tell me that I’m better than everyone else, won't hesitate to call me worthless. In Chariots of Fire, the Olympic runner Harold Abrahams said that “[I have] ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence.” I get that. I’m not nearly as good at soccer as I was ten years ago. My legs don’t move as fast and the cocky eighteen year olds move past me with a smirk. If I’m not the best, then who am I really? Beloved. But that’s hard to accept when I’m on the ground with a cramp in my calf.
Sniders are a perceptive people, keenly aware of how we appear to others. This means we’re prideful. So here’s what I tell myself: value isn’t an accomplishment. Human beings have the propensity to create scoreboards out of about anything—the size of houses, posts on facebook, red letters on the top of a graded paper. It looks like a lot of people are winning life, and we can get jealous, but many of them aren’t even competing. Regardless, life isn’t a competition that can be won and lost. We all die regardless of how many victories we've accrued on earth.
This is why losing can be good: it exposes our limits. It may even bring relief. There was a moment in a high school when our soccer team finally lost in the quarter finals of the state playoffs. I punched a locker, went to sleep, and woke up relieved. The pressure was off. Thank God. We don’t have to be the best, which is good because it's actually impossible. We are creatures; not saviors. Every crown put on a human head is a crown on a lump of dirt.
In other words, our aspirations must be tempered by humility. Now, humility doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself, or even thinking of yourself less, it means thinking of yourself properly—dependent and in relation to God. All of our accomplishments are not our own, but they’re gifts of grace—unearned and undeserved, given to us from God and others. Not one of us is self-made.
In a different scene of Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” When you compete, whose pleasure do you feel? This outlook strikes me as the kind of humility that will afford us the ability to compete without slipping into self-loathing or becoming intolerable to others. Laughing helps, too. Always laugh.
I’ve mellowed since I was eighteen, which means that no one has called me a jerk in some time. I’ve not stopped keeping score, but I do try to look at the right scoreboards. Now, this is likely attributed to maturity. But I also want to think that it’s grace making me more Christ-like. Jesus wasn’t much of a winner by our standards, unless he set out to get a crown of thorns. What does it profit to gain the world if you lose your soul? The exception was fishing; he always knew where to throw the net. Otherwise, Jesus tried to teach us that we win by losing. He said that the ones struggling at the back of the pack are the ones who are really out front. It all depends on where you place the finish line. And maybe the real finish line is sanctification, or transformation of the world into Jesus’ image.
Still, Jesus could get fairly competitive. He tells us that the widow who gives up two mites is winning. One found coin is worth more than the ones never lost. Jesus says he leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one that got away. He means to be all in all and I’m not sure he’ll stop competing until he is. After all, he is the Lord.
i. Lincoln Harvey makes this observation