Competition today is tantamount to a blood sport—and not just on the playing field or in the ring. The psychoanalytic theorist Karen Horney introduced the concept of hyper competitiveness as a neurotic personality trait almost 70 years ago. She characterized the hypercompetitive coping strategy as “moving against people” (in contrast to moving toward or away from people). Her observations are now all too evident in our culture. Extreme Us-versus-Them behavior has created a lonely world. There is always some new adversary to move against, so we get locked into a vicious circle of measuring our strength by disparaging others. I remember watching the ice dancing competition at the Winter Olympics one year. One couple had barely finished their intricate dance when the commentator barked out, “Lacks artistry!” Although bolstering our status by dismissing the efforts of others is presented as “normal” behavior by our culture, the feeling of superiority it produces is hollow. In contrast, mutual respect and appreciation among competitors breed a sense of solidarity.
The Insight Meditation Society once held a retreat for our Board members, during which a consultant we were working with gave us an exercise. We were separated into pairs to play a game resembling tic-tac-toe. Each player was to tally his or her points. Most of us figured we were competing against our partner to see who could score more points. But one of the pairs got the idea that if they cooperated rather than competed and pooled their points, their combined score would be higher than everyone else’s. Unlike the rest of us, who had assumed that every twosome would have a winner and a loser, this cooperative pair decided not to play as if they were battling each other. They outscored the rest of us because they had chosen to work together.
Competition is natural, a part of the human arsenal for survival, but when it creates enmity, we need to question its power in our lives. This is where sympathetic joy—joy in the happiness of others—comes in. If we’re in a competitive frame of mind, when something good happens to someone else, we think it somehow diminishes us. It doesn’t really, of course, but being consumed with jealousy and envy clouds our judgment. Even when we’re not in the running, extreme competitiveness makes us feel as if we were.
However, if we approach other people’s successes with an attitude of sympathetic joy, we can genuinely and wholeheartedly receive happiness from their good fortune. Instead of running an internal monologue that goes something like, Oh no, you got that, but it was meant for me! It should be mine, and you took it away, we can accept that the prize was never ours and rejoice in the other person’s success. If we approach life from a place of scarcity, a mind-set that emphasizes what we lack instead of what we have, then anyone who has something we want becomes the enemy. But when we can rejoice in other people’s happiness, we realize that joy and fulfillment are not finite quantities we have to grab while we can. They are always available, because they are internal qualities that flow naturally if we allow them to.
An accessible path to sympathetic joy runs through compassion, or the movement of the heart in response to pain or suffering with the wish to relieve that suffering. Compassion is an energized and empowering quality. As Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera says, “It is compassion that removes the heavy bar, opens the door to freedom, makes the narrow heart as wide as the world. Compassion takes away from the heart the inert weight, the paralyzing heaviness; it gives wings to those who cling to the lowlands of self.” Looking closely at the life of someone we consider the competition, we are bound to see hardships that the person has endured, or understand how tenuous status and good fortune can be. When we can connect with a perceived enemy on the level of human suffering, winning or losing seems less important.
Excerpt from Love Your Enemies
Buddha Image from the Insight Meditation Society