Saturday, March 16, 2013

Are your opponents your enemies?

Shortly after publishing my last post, describing my turbulent application process for an Erasmus Mundus European master's scholarship, I received the following comment from a friend: "I think I was one of those three Americans. :-)" (I kept the original smiley face so that you wouldn't think he was boasting.)

This got me thinking. Were we opponents at one time? Certainly: we were applying for the same program. We competed indirectly for acceptance into a program with a limited number of scholarships. We wanted the same prize. But at the time of applying, we didn't know who our competition was. We just knew that we had to stand out above the others to be accepted. To win the prize.

When the curtains were raised and we were revealed as "winners," we were no longer competitors, but friends. But what about the many others who were rejected or did not win a scholarship? Certainly, I was almost one of them. I'll probably never know all of these people. All I know is that in every competition, some people lose, but we never want to be the one who loses.

Assuming you know your opponents during a competition, how should you treat them? How intense is the competition? Is it a just a football game, or is it something that will change your life? Should that affect the way you think about your opponents?

Back in high school, I was a track runner. My best event was the 800m. I was pretty good. When I was a freshman, I was swimming with potential. I wasn't the best, but I was improving at a rate that made coaches pay close attention to me. One thing that made me good was my drive for success. I wanted to win. I learned strategies to keep me competitive, even against opponents that were clearly better. Coaches teach that the most important key to succeeding in a competition is to stay focused. "Don't let anything distract you from your goal." Good advice, but the application is subject to interpretation. My peers taught me a particular way to stay competitive: consider your opponents as enemies on the track. They will do everything to stop you from winning. So, you must win at all costs -- just don't cheat. So I tried it. I put on a face that screamed: "don't mess with me." With anger and determination, I always placed well in the races.

There was one particularly important competition that was my last chance to qualify for districts. There was a star runner at the meet -- a senior. He was quite possibly the best in our district. In our track meet, he was seeded first position in the 800, while I was seeded second. I guess he had heard about me from some friends. He made it pretty clear that he didn't like me much. He was a pretty intimidating guy, but I wasn't going to back down. We braced ourselves at the starting line and the gun fired. He played a dirty move and tripped me while throwing some elbows and I fell at the line. The gun shot again, signalling a restart. I pulled myself up and got ready again.

This time I wasn't going to let him do it to me again. The gun fired again and I was ready with my elbows, too. We batted at each other as we fought for first position. The gun fired yet again, signalling another restart. And once again. Three restarts. Finally, after the fourth starting gunshot, we took off again. I backed off a bit, hoping to regain on him later. It didn't work. I was too tired out from fighting on three false starts. In the end, I didn't get a personal record. I didn't qualify for districts. I blamed that guy for my failure. I didn't like him.

I kept that competitive attitude all throughout high school. It wasn't until college that I got a better perspective. I went to a Christian college with Christian coaches and Christian captains. The captains were quite good. But they treated competition much differently. I watched them shake hands with each of their competitors and wish them good luck before each race. If things got dirty, they could hold their own. But they never took advantage of other competitors. They would even congratulate the opponents that beat them -- and encouraged runners that lost to them. They had relationships with their opponents that spanned beyond the track. They were serious about their sport and they fought hard in every competition, but they honored their opponents and made it clear that they were privileged to race against such good athletes. It wasn't just because they were Christian. It was because they had good character.

I was ashamed of the attitude I carried all those years. What did my attitude say about my character? Coaches blab on and on about sportsmanship for a reason. It's not just for sports, but it's for your life. Is it necessary to fight bitterly against your opponents in any competition? Or is there a way to pursue your goals while encouraging others in their own pursuits? Certainly, some of your opponents are competing for things that are important in your life. But should you disqualify your character by forfeiting humility for success?

Jumping back to my application for the master's program. My opponents weren't my enemies anymore. I knew that if God wanted me somewhere, he'd make it happen. I have too many stories that prove this in my life. Nothing is worth risking the dignity of another. Even if it means that they rise above you.

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