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.