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First Sunday in Lent

Spiritual Reflection – Community & Competitiveness

Richard Dawkins made a fortune with his 1976 study, The Selfish Gene, which provided some scientific backup for the idea that competitiveness is the key to survival and success. To many in our individualistic culture this proposition seems almost self-evident. 

In 2011, Martin Nowak advanced a counter proposition. In his book SuperCooperators, he argued that the key to survival and success at all levels, from the gene upwards, is not competition but cooperation. Evolution is best served by cooperation. Cancer, for example, is a failure in cooperation: individual cells mutate and work against the common good of the organism. The success of their selfish competitiveness, however, ultimately leads to self-destruction. 

From another angle, Nicholas Humphrey reached a supporting conclusion. Species that live a social life are smarter, and so they evolve more quickly. Cooperation increases the breadth of individual insight and achievement. 

Primitive societies are totally aware of our common need for one another. We cannot all do everything, and, therefore, we must rely on others to contribute part of what is necessary for our flourishing. Contemporary Western society, on the other hand, seems to espouse the idea that a large portion of our existence can be devoid of any sense of dependence on others. We rely on computers and algorithms to give us the information we need. Self-service kiosks mean that we can get what we want without having to say “Good morning” to another human being. Online shopping allows person-to-person interaction to be reduced. For some it seems that virtual reality is more real than reality. 

Maybe we should give some thought to the values inherent in doing things together. Of course, it will necessitate my yielding up some of my precious autonomy; but I will gain many advantages, chief among which is a heightened awareness that I am not alone in this world. It may seem obvious, but many who lament the loneliness of their existence feel that way because they have gradually withdrawn from communal or corporate activities in favour of “doing their own thing.” 

Cooperation demands the willingness to work with people and presupposes a certain restraint in self-assertion. It asks that I pull back in order to make an inviting space for others. Far from being a celebration of selfishness and competitiveness, cooperation builds community and in so doing makes all of us smarter and happier. 

We cannot help being bemused by the incident in the gospel in which, after Jesus has spoken solemnly of his upcoming death and resurrection, two disciples approach him with a view to securing first place for themselves. It is a clear indication of one of the most obvious effects of ambition: it blinkers our vision so we have a concern only with the advancement of our own career path. What does not contribute to that has no importance. 

Competitiveness is not a very pleasant vice, even though it is often unnoticed. The only way we can get ahead is by scrambling over the top of everybody else. Who remembers those who came second? Ambition dismisses the claims of others and concentrates solely on getting ahead. We see it in politicians, we see it in bishops, we see it in minor functionaries in all sorts of organisations. It seems as though such people can become convinced of their own value only by downgrading that of others. Obviously, it is a very antisocial attitude to life. 

Saint James, in his epistle, is quite explicit about the dangers of ambition. “Wherever you find jealousy and ambition you find disharmony and wicked things of every kind being done.” Instead of meeting others where they are, we are inclined to push them down so that they do not seem to rise to our level. This in turn provokes a counterattack that eventually issues in external upheaval. Competitiveness, whether disguised or overt, undermines collaboration and eventually destroys community. 

The opposite of ambition is evangelical childlikeness, being content with the last and lowest place. This derives from a sense of security about one’s own lovableness, which is understood as independent of any notable achievements. A certain simplicity and honesty, free from any hidden agenda. Such a person is both trusted and trusting. 

Adults who are at peace with themselves, who are not clamouring for higher status, also make peace for others, building a healthy contentment and preparing the way for the action of God. A person who is content with little is not for sale, and their integrity is difficult to subvert. On the other hand, someone who is always climbing has eyes only for the future, will do whatever has to be done to achieve their goal, and may not be aware that slowly the quality of their life is being eroded. 

One is happy, the other not. One grows, the other shrinks.

Michael Casey, Balaam’s Donkey: Random Ruminations for Every Day of the Year (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2019), Location 1385 and 1415 of eBook edition.

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