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I have a predilection for friendly competition. I always have had.
Games of chess with my children.
Rounds of golf with my siblings.
Card games with my spouse.
Trivia contests with friends.
Mac and Cheese bakeoffs with co-workers.
I don’t need to win anything. In fact, I take more joy in the successes of others than I do my own.
But I love exploring the ways in which we all pursue a level of excellence that demonstrates, tests, or challenges the full capacity of our abilities. I’d rather do that with friends with whom the competition is more important that the outcome. When others take the winning or losing as some sort of commentary on their worth, I lose interest.
Skakespeare’s Hamlet says it this way:
“What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving, how express and admirable! In action how like and angel, in apprehension how like a god!”
When I either engage in friendly competition with others, or waste a watchful hour bearing witness to their artful efforts while I spectate, my heart sings at the nobility and beauty in human form of which Shakespeare writes.
It has been said of us that our bodies are holy temples, our minds like palaces. Whether in art or literature or sport or intellect, something there is that loves excellence in another or ourselves.
As a child, I would thrill at how the neighborhood would gather and the children would choose up sides and play: foursquare, fuzzball, hopscotch, stepball, wiffleball, frisbee football, mother-may-I. It didn’t matter what we did – we just always found a way to while away the hours and enjoy each other’s abilities, testing our limits against theirs and taking pride when new levels of excellence were reached.
A favorite memory of mine happened in the one year I taught high school. Among the many things I did that year, I was the assistant track coach. We had a young woman on the team who loved running. She always finished dead last in the distance races she competed in – but never minded. Finishing for her was the goal, and she took great pride in it. She was often lapped by the leaders.
Towards the end of the season, we were in a large meet. Lots of schools. Late in the day, she ran her two mile race – and once again found herself well behind the leaders. But for the first time all season, she wasn’t alone. Another competitor from another school was taking up the rear with her. Long after the front-runners crossed the finish line and all other competitors had ended their run, those two ran a full lap with each other side by side.
The entire stadium stopped what they were doing. The long-jumpers paused. As did the shot-putters, high-jumpers, and pole-vaulters. Other runners who had been stretching and preparing for their upcoming race ran to the inside of the track to watch.
The fans began to take notice. As the two came around the final turn, and for the first time ever for either runner, the crowd was focused on them. They ran their hearts out and crossed the line together, each trying hard to outdo the other. As they finished, there was a roar of applause. The two looked at each other and embraced.
Yeah, I have a predilection for friendly competition. I think it brings out the best in us. I give God thanks for the joy we take in testing our abilities against others and broadening our limits. May we all celebrate what body and mind can accomplish on this, our journey Into the Mystic.