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Visum Monachae…On Competitiveness

Sister Edith Bogue

A Jesuit friend’s casual comment came to mind as I’ve pondered our polarized elections. We were talking about community living, especially our own challenges and struggles. “I get competitive,” he said. His tone implied this was problematic. I was a newbie in the monastery; I didn’t understand. Now I’ve heard of novices trying to out-fast or out-pray their fellows, even damaging their health. Competitiveness must be a common problem: St. Benedict called it out in his Rule. “Don’t try to appear holy before you really are,” he wrote.

Some competition is healthy and good. Every year, CSS and its departments recognize dozens of students for excellence: scholar-athletes, student employees, Mr. CSS, student leadership– the list is long. The winners had high standards to begin with. The awards provide focus and goals rather than elicit new behavior. When interviewed, the winners speak of competing with themselves, of striving to be better tomorrow than they were yesterday. How could this be any threat to good community living?

Even this self-competition mindset poses two dangers to the individual and to his or her communities. First, the focus of motivation can shift from the original valued goal to maintaining appearances or status. In addition, it emphasizes the impact of our work, and diminishes our awareness of others’ contributions. No matter how smart or hard-working we are, some portion of our success derives from those who gave us important skills or traits, encouraged us, or created the setting in which we are thriving. We over-trust our own abilities and fail to nurture our team members. We demean those who achieve less while hoping those who achieved more will be our mentors.

My Jesuit friend also knew about the negative impact of constantly comparing ourselves to others. We get depressed: there’s always someone better than me at any one thing. Worse, those comparisons poison our efforts to work together. Competitiveness tempts us to subtle superiority rather than encouragement and mutual learning; “Oh, you don’t know that yet?” Constant comparison promotes resentment and anxiety; it undermines trust and collaboration.

Comparison and competitiveness become toxic when they focus entirely on winning, setting aside consideration of the original values. No longer working hard to be the best they can be, people and even whole groups seek to diminish anyone who seems to shine. Those truly seeking excellence leave the group. This over-competitiveness dehumanizes the entire endeavor.

Benedictine spirituality offers an alternative. Assuming that every person is capable of growth, St.Benedict instructs leaders to nurture each member’s potential. He tells the members to choose whatever benefits the others, not themselves. When someone excels, they get more responsibility, not a trophy. Why does this work? Because St.Benedict redefines winning. “Your ways should be different from the world’s ways,” he says. Yes, celebrate those who shine out — the saints. But “winning” means getting as many as possible over the finish line. Imagine elections to increase the common good! As St.Benedict says, “Never despair of God’s mercy.”