Strive: With or Against

Strive: With or Against November 2, 2019

I think about coaching track and field a lot. But I often have a skewed way of thinking about it, I guess. This past week our pastor, Karla Morton, preached on Jesus’ parable of the pharisee and the tax-collector. Among other pious thoughts, I thought of coaching.

Valuing Our Competitor

In Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, there is an extended conversation with Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks (you can learn more about their collaboration here). While describing her visit to the Seahawks training facility, Duckworth comments on the number of times she hears the word “compete.” It is a trademark of the Seahawks’ communication and team-talk. “Compete,” becomes a touchstone to check one’s efforts and interactions. As described by Carroll, competition, broken into it’s component parts in Latin means to strive with. It was from this conversation that I looked into the word in an etymological dictionary. Of special interest were the earlier Latin usages:

…from Late Latin competere “strive in common, strive after something in company with or together,” in classical Latin “to meet or come together; agree or coincide; to be qualified,” from com “with, together” (see com-) + petere “to strive, seek, fall upon, rush at, attack” (from PIE root *pet- “to rush, to fly”). According to OED, rare 17c., revived from late 18c. in sense “to strive (alongside another) for the attainment of something….”

Parents who wish to guard children from the pain of losing create youth sports leagues that do not keep score at ball games. Believe me, the kids know the score. There is this feeling that competition is damaging. Competition does damage to the vulnerable. That competition might even be un-Christian or just plain bad and nasty. That’s because we do not compete correctly. The opponent is never the enemy. In fact, they are the athlete’s best ally.

The more refined etymological definition of the word compete reveals what we might miss. It’s quite simple and easily over looked. To compete means “to strive with”. We have turned it into striving against. When opponents meet on the field, together they strive to accomplish the game. They even strive together.

Striving Against

As I said, this week we heard from Luke’s gospel, the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, as it came up in the lectionary.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 18:9-14).

At least one of these two characters thought of himself as striving against the other. The pharisee, for some reason, did all he could to keep the tax-collector at a distance, to belittle him, to dehumanize him. If the pharisee acknowledged the tax collector as another human being trying to find meaning, would he have felt as if he was less holy or entitled? Holiness is not a zero-sum game, to have treated the tax-collector with kindness, noticing his demeanor and humility, would have cost the pharisee nothing.

One of the things that track meets are filled with are athletes striving with, not against, each other. So much so, that when it happens otherwise, it sparks controversy. Toward the beginning of the 2019 collegiate season, there was a display of striving against that shocked a number of people in the track-world. An LSU sprinter leaned toward a Houston University sprinter as they crossed the finish line. There was no striving with, it appeared as striving against. You can see the video here. While some of the controversy was overblown, the message was clear, “that’s not how we do it on the track.”

Strive With

What does happen frequently in track are the friendly competitions. Lining up at the start, waiting to be called for a jump or a throw we talk to the others we are striving with. We even cheer them on. Seeing them at meets, we become friends, they push us, we push them, we both improve.

There are many dramatic acts of striving with each other. Many go unnoticed. In 2016, during the 5000 meter race, (watch it here) these two competitors chose to not strive against, but to strive with.

The pair were racing in a 5,000m heat when Hamblin tripped and fell. D’Agostino was caught up in the tumble and also fell. She managed to get up, and rather than sprinting off, stopped and helped Hamblin to her feet. The pair began to race on, but D’Agostino had twisted her leg badly in the tumble and fell again. Like D’Agostino, Hamblin chose to stay at her side rather than race away, giving up her own medal chances in the process. Supported by Hamblin, D’Agostino managed to get up and the pair finished the race together (The Guardian).

Hamblin and D’Agostino were awarded International Fair Play Committee Award by the International Olympic Committee.

We Sharpen Each Other

Iron sharpens iron,
   and one person sharpens the wits of another (Prov 27:17).

This becomes the model of striving with. Whether it is linemen at the scrimmage line, basketball players at the tip, or a pitcher staring down a batter. We compete out of the joy of shared striving more than the desire to see our opponent fail.

In the church, we call it encouragement, exhortation, maybe once and awhile rebuke, sometimes accountability. But we hold each other up to ideals and hope and mercy; it isn’t to burden the other, but knowing that if they step up their game, we can to. The benefit to one is a benefit to the other, means I can improve to (I Corinthians 12:25-26).

The tax-collector and the pharisee actually needed each other. The tax-collector could have challenged and helped the pharisee, and visa versa. Each possessed something the other lacked. The pharisee knew about God’s mercy, the tax-collector knew God’s mercy. The tax-collector understood his spiritual atrophy, the pharisee held a wealth of faithful practices that had lost their intended meaning. They could have striven with each other. But, holding the power in this dynamic, it falls to the pharisees to begin.


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