As the US open tennis tournament gets under way today in Flushing Meadows, N. Y., I'm reminded of something Pete Sampras said last month. It was about the dramatic improvement in his game that had taken him to his sixth Wimbledon title. He said it could be attributed partly to the quality of play of his opponent (and friend) Andre Agassi.
"He elevates my game to a level that is phenomenal because I have so much respect for his game," Sampras said.
What a refreshing approach not only to good sportsmanship but to all human relationships. Instead of being destined for rivalry, we are designed to bring out the best in each other. And this offers hope for ending the pressure, irritation, and disappointment people face in dealing with professional colleagues, family members, and neighbors. It's not necessary for one side to sink into worthlessness, or for the other to be tempted with egotism.
Something from the Bible points up the challenge to be clear about the motives behind any endeavor: "Where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace" (James 3:16-18).
The word strife illustrates a sort of meanspirited competition that pulls everyone down, ruins sports, makes business cutthroat, spoils the atmosphere of family life, and keeps neighbors from knowing each other.
But it's obvious that somebody has to win the tennis match, get the business contract, and be the authority figure at work or in the family. So, how can we be happy and supportive? There's a constructive angle to competition that encourages everyone to greater heights.
Constructive interaction between people is based securely on this premise: that God has made us to be a blessing to one another. God has not made us to rush around frantically competing for limited good, like squirrels rushing around trying to find enough nuts for the winter. God has made us with everything we need in order to feel worthy, safe, secure, now.
We come to each other not as wounded half-beings, trying to find our wholeness through marriage, business, or sports. These are all obviously worthwhile commitments that offer satisfaction. They strengthen society when they're based on aspirations like unselfishness, integrity, faithfulness in developing a talent. But instead of seeing the fulfillment as coming from the activity, try seeing yourself as bringing your fulfillment and joy to it.
"Brother birds, that soar and sing." That metaphor for human relationships appears in a poem by Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science. There's a wholeness of individuality in that picture. Even though the birds are delighting in each other, they obviously each have their own set of wings. As children of the one Spirit, we're each spiritual and uniquely individual - brothers and sisters who don't need to ace each other out.
That's key to defusing the desperate sense of competition that looks at everyone else's talents as a threat. Skills and talents are gifts from God. What constitutes their substance is the spiritual qualities of God, which we each express. The intelligence, strength, agility, and creativity we see in other people come from God, the divine Principle of all life. Realizing this, we can honor the spiritual substance of others' abilities. Doing that, we can find a better, more honest commitment to improving our own lives.
There's probably nothing more self-defeating than to be so afraid someone is better than you are that you end up belittling yourself. The answer lies in recognizing, appreciating, another's relationship to God; that's a way we feel our own relationship to Him more intimately. Ultimately, we need our own sense of worth in order to value the worth of other people.
Jesus preached about the kingdom of heaven within us. This nudges us to think in relationship to each other. We're not created as isolated, solitary beings. We're designed to recognize the breadth of God's beauty around us. Making a commitment to see the goodness of God in each other puts us in a position of security and authority.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society