Friday, August 30, 2013

Athletic Competition and Cooperation

I had a conversation with a friend a long time ago, when I was in college. We were young, we were idealistic, and we were exploring the places where our philosophical positions synced up (or didn't) with real life.

The conversation I recall revolved around sport – particularly around the competitive component of athletic endeavors.

I was making the point that competition was necessary because only when we compete with someone else do we improve our own capabilities. For instance, I can become a decent basketball player on my own, but I'll never be as good as I could be if I never played basketball against players who are better than I am.

My friend was making the point that competition necessarily produces winners and losers; and that when there are winners and losers, the community is degraded.

I couldn't disagree with her. At the same time, I knew that athletic endeavors had the potential to build community up rather than tearing it apart, provided that everyone celebrates the achievements of the losers as much as we celebrate the winners.

The trouble, though, is that very few people do this. So I couldn't actually disagree with her, though at some level I recognized that there must be someplace I could point to where both competition and community were valued, where a person could truly and fully celebrate the achievements of the person they compete against.

For the past year, I've been working out at a CrossFit gym – which is where I've discovered what I didn't know how to talk about when I was in college.

Here's what happens at the CrossFit gyms I've been in. The class starts by warming up together. Then much of the time we work on strength-building. At the gym where I keep my membership, we do our best to partner up with someone who has similar ability, which allows us to encourage each other.

Then it's time for the Workout of the Day (known by the acronym WOD). This workout is either doing an appointed number of repetitions of something as quickly as possible (how quickly can you do 50 pushups?), or it's how many repetitions can you do in a certain amount of time (how many pullups can you do in 8 minutes?)

Obviously some people are going to either finish much more quickly than other people, or some people are going to do say more repetitions than other people can. And obviously what could happen in the gym is that those who finish quickly or do more reps could celebrate their own success while those who were not as strong/fast/capable can only wish they were better.

What actually happens, though, is that the stronger/faster always encourage the weaker/slower, celebrating their success at working hard and improving their own fitness.

They say that CrossFit is the only 'sport' in which the ones who finish last get the loudest cheers. And in my experience, the saying holds true – that's what actually happens.

In this way we can compete with one another while still building up community. In this way we can recognize the role competition plays in personal improvement. And we can recognize the truth that competition doesn't have to degrade community when the goal (instead of winning and losing) is nothing more than improving the self. Because I know that if I have done my best, I can celebrate my neighbor doing their best no matter which of us is 'better' at whatever we were doing that day.

It doesn't happen everywhere - but at least at CrossFit gyms, competition and cooperation can coexist.


Friday, August 16, 2013

I probably know her name

every so often she shows up,
eating donuts between services,
while not quite understanding
     social mores

a little awkward,
with one-too-many pastries
     on her napkin
she seems stuck
out on the edge of a community
     where only some of us know her name

I always cringe a little when I see her
     since conversation never flows easily

she stays outside at worship as well
not sitting in the 'normal' seats,
     standing when the rest of us sit
not quite sure, it seems,
     how to pay attention to how to be

yet she knows enough to come forward
     hands extended
to receive bread and cup, body and blood

before she scoots out, not needing to
talk to anyone

I know her name
          she told me early on
but I wonder if she misspoke

it's probably better for me to just
     start calling her "Jesus"

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Offering Prayer

last-minute scrounging from
couch cushions or auto ashtrays
to put cash in the plate

cans of food delivered weekly
and almost-anonymously, filling our shelves today
so that tomorrow someone can eat

checks, written carefully
the first of each month,
leaving other bills 'til later
a couple bucks, emptying my wallet
of all but credit cards
so the cardboard-sign-guy can eat

school supplies on a sanctuary table
destined for kids whose parents
may need to write their own cardboard sign

an elder kneeling beside a preschooler
for just a moment on the patio,
to hear her immediate story

bank transfers,
digital ones and zeros magically lessening
my account, strengthening our work together
grieving parents offering
their dying son's organs
to bring another family new life

All These We Offer To You, O G-d