My friend, Albus, and I were sharing a beer together when I brought up this subject of competition. Albus responded, “Yeah, to be honest with you, I feel like I’m competing with you right now.” I laughed thinking he was joking but after considering the truth of it I acknowledged, “Hmm, I guess I’m competing with you right now, too.” Actually, if I exposed the inventory of my head during the previous 5 minutes of thoughts I’d be a bit embarrassed to admit that I was thinking that my beer sitting over there on the bar, an extremely hoppy IPA, could out man Albus’s boring choice of Fat Tire.
We are a competitive bunch. Is there not the scent of rivalry at times even among the closest of companions? In his book, Compassion, Henri Nouwen writes,
“When we take a critical look at ourselves, we have to recognize that competition, not compassion, is our main motivation in life.”
Perhaps it’s easier for this self-awareness in Albus and myself when considering our histories. We both share the intense experience of collegiate athletics, I played basketball and Albus, a former All-American cornerback is now a city council member in Denver’s 8th district.
I'm not sure there's a more competitive realm than that of politics. I often feel like I'm stuck back in 7th grade when I listen to politicians seek to gain ground by mercilessly pointing out one another's incompetence.
So, as I’ve considered this idea of competition and how thickly saturated our culture and relationships are with it, I wonder, is there an anti-dote? Is there a way of being which allows us to recognize and dissolve this reality that keeps our relationships from reaching the level of intimacy that our hearts so desire?
The one thing that seems to table the rivalry at least for awhile is the regular practice of confession. Throughout the history of Christianity, the healing that takes place through the vulnerability of regular confession was deemed necessary to the point of it becoming an official role in the community. And it wasn’t long before even the act of confession was possessed by the gravity of competition as only those with special training and Rome’s blessing could wave the wand of divine forgiveness.
It took some rebellious Celtic monks to uncover the reality that ordinary people in times of shame and doubt needed an anamchara or a “soul friend.” This ancient understanding of a soul friend was one who would willingly sit in the “mercy seat” and declare with authority that what God forgives, they dare not hold against themselves or one another.
My confessions are often so awkward that it seems strange to call them a sacrament but that's likely due to the way we've over-professionalized the mercy seat. Soul friends have the potential to draw us out of the competitve matrix, transcend the rivalries, and move us further into a sincere space of reconciliation.
Life is full of polarities. With competition on one end and Kenosis or self-emptying on the other we are invited to creatively hold the tension. This tension acts as a chrysalis of sorts as we embrace the potential of flight. When we feel the competitiveness within ourselves and others we wait patiently as well as actively and gracefully confess to one another that we are unfinished.