Monday, January 7, 2013

"The Art of Winning and Losing" - Sermon

The Art of Winning and Losing
            This week I found myself in a little bit of an intellectual bind. It is not rare, but it was especially true this week. On Wednesday evening, some of us began a discussion group for the book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,” by Karen Armstrong. We had a great talk about the role of love in compassion and the difference between helping others out of obligation and helping others out of a sense of caring. And we talked about some of the great religious traditions and teachers who illuminated the path to compassion.
            The very next day, I sat down to write this sermon about engaging in competition and winning or losing with grace. I found myself forced to reconcile these two great pieces of our life, compassion and competition. I guess the simple way to look at the question is this: does the golden rule apply to competition? Is it possible to engage in competition with compassion in our hearts? It isn’t simple, but I think it is possible, and I think it is something that gets done more that we acknowledge. The question of winning and losing gracefully, really comes down to how we play the game, how we engage in competition. Do we do it to diminish an opponent, or do we do it to seek a higher purpose for everyone involved? How do we compete with compassion?
            In her introduction to her book on compassion, Karen Armstong starts with a very scientific perspective. She writes about the old brain and the new brain. Old and new here aren’t about the age of a person, they are about the way that the human brain has developed over millennia through evolution. You see we still have the old portion of our brain, the reptilian self-defense mechanism. As Armstrong puts it, the old brain is only concerned with the four Fs: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and … reproduction. This is the brain that we have in common with the simplest of animals. We have heard of fight or flight response, we know these things come at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We are animals and at a base level we are hard wired to survive in a sometimes harsh world. We have an old brain.
            But over millennia we developed a “new brain” which is home of the reasoning powers. Our capacity for reason and love came with amazing physical adaptation, namely a larger head. Over time we developed larger skulls to make room for this giant brain. We even adapted the course of childbirth. Because a large head makes childbirth more difficult, humans evolved to give birth to less mature infants who would be dependent on their mothers for a tremendous amount of time, to allow the birth of a body with a head large enough for our amazing brains.
            This new brain must have been a tremendous advantage to drive those changes in evolution. And in deed it is. Our new brain enables us to reflect on the world around us and to be conscious of ourselves in that world. And along with that ability to for critical thought comes the capacity for compassion.
            I wanted to talk about this new brain and old brain idea for two different reasons as we talk about competition. First, is that natural selection and the survival of the fittest is so grossly misunderstood and misrepresented in conversations about competition. Social Darwinists have claimed for centuries that we are animals and we evolved to excellence through competition. They say competition is a good thing because it weeds out he week and empowers the strong. Competition is the natural order of things and it establishes a fruitful power structure and division of resources.
            This is simply bad science. It is well intended, but bad science. It’s true that like other animals, we evolved through competition. But the fruit of that evolution is a capacity to cooperate, to love, and to share our resources equitably. Compassion is just as much a part of our DNA as competition is. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Fighting is no more natural for us than embracing, and competition is no more natural for us than cooperating. Nature is no justification for human oppression.
            The other reason I wanted to bring up these two brains, the old and the new, is that no matter how evolved we are, the old brain never goes away. Our drive for the four Fs, our need to feed, fight, flee, or… reproduce never disappears. A part of our basic biology is an inclination to compete for resources. But look around and you will see for most of us, our basic needs for survival are more than adequately met. But we still have this desire, this passion to do something that is no longer necessary.
            It seems to me, that compassionate competition, competition within some agreed upon constraints is actually a good way to navigate our way between the old brain and the new brain. It seems to me that rather than posing competition and compassion as necessary opposites, we can actually use friendly competition to build a working relationship between the old brain and the new brain.
            How many of you have been, or are involved in some form of competitive sport? And how many of you have learned something about yourself through that process?
            The chances are very good that what you learned was about pushing yourself to achieve more than you thought possible. I know that’s what I learned about from swimming in high-school. Yes, it felt good to win, and I was actually pretty good. As a formerly awkward non-athletic child, I actually surprised myself by how well I did. But what was even more surprising was much I could push myself to improve. Swimming is hard work. I remember being totally exhausted, gasping for air, and knowing that the in five seconds it was time to push off that wall and start swimming again, fast. But I did it; I got through it. I learned to push myself in ways that I had never known before. I had a great time in those hours and hours of practice with equally committed and supportive teammates.
            What we learn through compassionate competition is an appreciation not for winning, but an appreciation for doing our best, an appreciation for excellence, and the journey it takes to get there.
            The art of winning and losing really comes down to why we play the game. If we play to feel like we are somehow superior to another person, the chances are pretty darn good that in winning or in losing we will be, well, a jerk. But, if we play the game because we love it, because we want to improve ourselves, or because we like the relationships that it builds, then winning and losing with grace becomes a much more realistic prospect.

            This whole topic of winning and losing well came up because of our monthly worship theme. For January we are focusing in the concept of Grace in our worship services. Grace is a huge complex theological concept, rooted mostly in the Christian tradition. Grace is all about getting a chance to do better, getting an unearned opportunity to direct our lives away from destruction and toward life. Grace is a second chance one a cosmic level.
            Most models of grace come through the power of the divine to intercede in our lives and offer new opportunities. To varying degrees that makes sense. But there is a Unitarian Universalist concept of grace that I think we can all sink our teeth into. One of our Unitarian Universalist theologians talks about grace as having the good fortune to fall in love with the right thing. Rev. Marjorie Bowen-Wheatley writes that grace is falling in love with a worthy reality, not being able to help loving someone or something worth loving. Grace is falling in love with things that are worthy of our love.
            Graceful competition, or graceful winning and losing then, means engaging in competition for the sake of a higher ideal than ourselves. It may be for the fun of the game, it may be for the common pursuit of excellence, or even some nobler idea. But graceful competition means loving something, not hating our opponent.
            One possible goal to focus on is excellence. Not being better than another person that you are competing against, but understanding that all of those competing are aiming to be the best in their field, whatever it may be. Whether it is in sports, academia, or even democratic government, competition is used as a means to move toward and to celebrate excellence.
            This sort of training for excellence is what I typically think of in the Olympics. Occasionally we get a story of personal competition between great athletes or great teams. But more than that, the Olympic games are an opportunity for the entire world to celebrate excellence in achievement. It’s about celebrating together the great accomplishments that are possible. We all know that the Olympics is supposed to be an apolitical sporting event. But I was interested to know that that has always been the purpose. In the midst of the fiercest athletic competition individuals and nations put aside personal differences to celebrate excellence. Historical records indicate that the Olympic games began around 776 BC. In that time an Olympic truce was called between city-states so that athletes could safely travel to the games. Then, as now there was some politicking involved as government officials jockeyed for public attention, but the real focus was on the athletic excellence that each nation-state sent forth as a representative.
            But competition doesn’t just cultivate excellence in sports. It also is a tool for cultivating great art and great ideas. Though it seems civilized, academia is an incredibly competitive environment. To be taken serious you have to prove your ideas against the voice of those who oppose you. In the grand market place of ideas, you have to prove that what you produce is a good product, better than your peers even. We also depend on a market place of ideas for our political system. Democracy is at its core a competition of opposing ideas and a competition between different potential leaders. Different ideas or different candidates are presented to the public, for a debate, a competition to clarify which makes more sense for the good of the whole community.
            Compassionate competition also has a great capacity for building relationships. If we hold in our hearts mutual respect rather than disdain for the other, a great bond can be forged through competing.
            Just before I sat down to write this sermon I went to drop off my rent check with my landlord. She also went to the University of Oklahoma so she reminded me about the OU  / Texas football game being played that day. This is a SERIOUS rivalry if you know anything about college football. And she said something peculiar. She said she was going to get out her OU hat and sweat shirt to watch the game, and get her five dollar bill. So of course I had to ask, “What five-dollar bill?” It’s the same $5 bill that she brings out every year when OU plays against Texas. It’s the same $5 bill that she won betting against her father. You see they had an annual tradition of watching this particular football game and betting on it. The last year they watched it before he died, she won the $5 bet. And she sill has the bill as a reminder of her relationship with her dad and all the time they shared watching football over the decades.

            If we set our sights on the right thing, if we engage in competition because of a love of excellence or for building our relationships, it can do great things.
            This may sound odd, but I think there is a huge lesson in this conversation for us as a religious community. We are a Fellowship, a church, a Unitarian Universalist community. We are a religious organization and we compete in a market place of ideas with other religious organizations. That’s right, we compete in a market place of ideas with other religious organizations.
            And we have a very bad habit of dismissing our competitors. As Unitarian Universalists we tend to root for the under dog. We like small churches that align themselves with the oppressed. And that is a beautiful thing. But it seems to me that rather than dismissing those churches who have grown, especially the ones that are dynamic and flourishing, instead of dismissing them as somehow different, we should try and learn from what they have done to achieve their excellence. Rooting for the underdog is a fine thing. But it should never blind us from the fact that someone is winning the competition. And if they have been winning the competition consistently, they probably have some tremendous effort or skills that others could learn from.
            On the group level we tend to think of those other large growing dynamic churches as somehow different and we don’t see ourselves in competition with them. And we do the same thing on the individual level. I know many of us are afraid of telling others about Unitarian Universalism. We think that that’s just not the UU way. Well for one, that’s just not accurate. Universalists were some of the best evangelizers of American religious history. Sharing the good news of universal salvation is a part of our history.
            I said earlier that we compete in a market place of ideas with other religious groups. I want you to consider what it means that we typically refrain from this competition. Why do we refrain, on an individual level? Why don’t we share the truth that we have found here? Is it because we think that other people don’t need what we have found here and love? Is it because we are intimidated by another idea and we don’t stand a chance in the competition? Is it because we think our idea is too good to share with others? What is it that makes sharing Unitarian Universalism in the market place of ideas so unthinkable to most of us? I have a very strong feeling that it has to do with competition, and our fear of losing.

            So to answer the question from earlier, yes, the golden rule does apply to competition. In fact it is that very rule that dictates our ability to win or lose with grace. The art of winning and losing is really the art of entering a contest with a compassionate heart, hoping not to diminish another person, but instead to mutually grow in knowledge, skill and in love.



  1. Did the UUA do this to diminish an opponent, or did the UUA do it to seek a higher purpose for everyone involved?

    Just asking. . .

    1. An interesting question. Both Unitarianism and Universalism were Christian reform movements that were eventually rejected from the Christian orthodoxy. They began as genuine attempts at truth seeking by faithful individuals. But on occasion, the culturally Unitarian piece of our tradition embraces a sense of intellectual superiority to diminish an opponent.

  2. Very well done, Kent. Thanks for this.

    From a once National Championship sailing team member,