Review of Chapter 7, “When Triumph is Disaster”
by Daniel Bigler
The problems of children, for many people, seem not to compare to the difficulties of life as an adult. Problems? Children don’t have problems!
But they so often do. Their world, as Stafford wrote in past chapters, is just as real as ours – with the same kinds of worries and unease. They are not the citizens of “someday,” as some might claim, but they inhabit our shared world – and with us, share concerns over hurriedness and commitments, material obsessions, and much more. Children, just like us, need and deserve freedom from these debilitating plagues.
Chapter 7, “When Triumph is Disaster,” introduces a third affliction that many children face – the affliction of corrosive competition.
It’s a dangerous thing, competition. On the one hand it’s the bedrock of our Western economies; we thrive off of competition, and our personal survival is entwined completely with personal victory.
As Stafford recalls from his youth, though, competition is not a universal phenomena. “I don’t recall that our village even had a word in Senari, our tribal language,” he writes, “for competition.”
“The concept of achieving personal victory at the expense of another’s defeat was not only foreign but, when explained, repulsive. For us the lowest form of social behavior was to withhold from a brother or sister in time of need. To be selfish was among the worst crimes we as children could commit.”
Sharing boundlessly, perpetually, should be held as a cherished value, Stafford writes. As a young boy, he and his schoolmates used to share answers on tests; surely cheating in an American classroom today, but for them, it was the natural, good thing to do – the only thing to do.
What about competition on the sports field, one might wonder though? What about games like soccer, which thrive off of the thrill of winning?
Stafford has a rich abundance of experience there, too – coming from Africa, where soccer is not only played but lived. He reflects that the games played from the village weren’t as clearly cut and defined; a game wouldn’t end on a field, but be spread through the entire village, racing from courtyard to courtyard; the ball (a leathery thing made out of chicken guts, actually), passed from person to person. The point was not winning, but excellence and enjoyment. (The only real competition, he writes, was from the village dogs – who smelled the delicious, chicken gut balls and immediately sought after them when the kids were playing.)
There can be joy in sport.
I myself remember distinctly why I never really played any organized sports as a kid, and it was because of this – because they lacked joy. They were too planned, too professional. They were all about winning or losing. Often, this corrosive part of of competition, this drive solely to be better than others, keeps us from doing what really matters. Stafford recalls 2 Timothy 4:7, where Paul writes about “fighting the good fight,” and “finishing the race” – but even here, it was for a purpose larger than himself: Paul’s competitive spirit was not led by selfishness, but by a desire for faithfulness and excellence.
What are we competing for, we have to ask ourselves? Is it triumph? (As Stafford quotes Lincoln, upon his reelection to a second term as president: “It is no pleasure to me to triumph over anyone.”) Or is it for something better, something beyond ourselves?
“There is victory beyond the victory on the scoreboard. We can all compete, but we shouldn’t make it an end to itself. Realize it is a journey. Competition should be our servant, a mere tool to drive us toward excellence.
When your children, grandchildren, or the children around you experience success, acknowledge the victory with great joy and tell them how proud you are. But more important, in a quiet moment talk to them of the courage, determination, hard work, sacrifice, integrity, and character it took to achieve that victory.”