I like to win. I hate to lose. When the Oakland A’s (my favorite baseball team) win, I feel giddy. When they get beat in the first round of the playoffs (as has happened the past four years), I carry it like a wound.
Paradoxically, I have never entirely liked competition. It raises unpleasant emotions in me. The thrill of victory I like, but the agony of defeat is real agony. In elementary school, if my team came up short at a pick-up baseball game, the disappointment was so intense that I could not hide it. Tears stung my eyes. I felt ugly, bruised, angry, all of which went against the devil-may-care attitude any sixth-grade boy would like to assume. Though I tried, I could not blot out my intense emotions.
Later, I played tennis on my high school team. When I missed a shot, I swore under my breath. Gradually, “under my breath” grew audible, until my coaches told me to can it. Just as crying had embarrassed me in sixth grade, so uncontrolled swearing embarrassed me in high school.
Decades later, coaching Little League for my sons’ teams, I would find myself awake at night, playing and replaying games in my head. I knew full well that these games were insignificant. These were little boys! In fact, I scorned the coaches and parents who let their egos get over-involved in the games. And yet, the emotions of winning and losing sometimes plagued me and kept me tossing in bed at night.
It’s not just sports. I am a writer. Writing is not a competitive sport. Yet, I can find myself exalted or depressed by sales figures. When I am in a roomful of writers, I feel competitive angst: just where do I rank? I don’t like such thoughts and feelings. Yet they come.
Sometimes I wonder about this competitive passion I find in myself. Is it a demon to be exorcised? Could I rid myself of it and be liberated?
I think not. This passion is a part of my soul—a part I am not entirely happy with, for who can be entirely happy with his soul? Pressures of life and sin have stretched it out of its given shape. Nevertheless, my soul retains the capacities God meant it to have. Some of these are activated by competition.
Competition teaches me that I am a passionate man. I have a powerful drive. I am not content to let life follow its course; rather I seek to direct life, to put my stamp on it. Competition has forced me to recognize some unattractive aspects to such passions. But it has also caused me to work harder, to seek higher achievements, to evaluate myself with rigor. Competition has made me lie awake at night. It has made me care. It often drives me to do my very best.
We are, by God’s creative grace, a species seeking more than mere survival. Competition raises up the passion for extraordinary effort. Surely God wants nothing less.
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