Not too long ago I read a story about an Amazon tribe and a very special game. Two teams were chosen with no particular criteria as to strength or acumen. Each team would hoist a log onto their shoulders and then they would run. As one team began to lag behind the other, members of the leading team would peel off to join the second place team. If the team in the lead fell back, the other team would come to their aid. This back and forth dance would continue until the finish line was in sight and the object of the game accomplished: a tie.
I’ve scoured the internet for proof of this tribe and if the story was true, but I found no validation in the annals of the Google realms. Yet the story reverberates with a deeper truth that reaches beyond any sound byte or downloaded video evidence. It speaks to an innate quality within each of us to help the other, to reach out and give a hand up to someone who has fallen into the margins of this competitive world.
Getting ahead could be argued to be part and parcel of our primitive objective, a summary conclusion of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the precept of survival of the fittest. We see it acted out everyday in the halls of education with objectifying grading systems, in the bastions of corporations and organizations where promotions serve as ephemeral proof of innate worth, on the playing fields in nearly every North American community where play has devolved into obsession and at times hand-to-hand combat. How many times have we heard of parents brawling at their children’s soccer/baseball/hockey games in the name of winning at all costs, even if it means cruelty to someone else’s child? What lessons are seeding themselves into the consciousness of each of those children and each of us? Even seeing those disparaging parents as other from ourselves is to cannibalize our own humanity. Can we turn the anger and resentment we may feel towards those vengeful mothers and fathers into empathy and deep compassion?
When I think of intense sports rivalries such as the Super Bowl or the Olympics or the Stanley Cup, the moments that settle into my heart are not those of the winners holding medals or fabricated prizes high over their heads, but rather of the instances of humanity shared in brief encounters of forgotten competition. Take Canadian sailor, Lawrence Lemieux, who at the 1988 Olympics in Korea abandoned his chance for a medal by coming to the aid of a two competitors whose boat had capsized in high winds. There was the faultless humanity of high school track competitor, Meghan Vogel, who will probably not be remembered for winning the 1600 meter Ohio State Championship in 2012, but instead for her small act of compassion to aid fellow runner, Arden McMath, after she fell near the end of the 3200 meter race. Not only did Meghan carry her injured companion to the finish line, she pushed her ahead so that Arden would not finish last.
In a recent Nature article, Harvard researchers David G. Rand, Joshua D. Greene and Martin A. Nowak used an economic game to determine whether we as individuals are predisposed to selfishness or if we are innately wired for cooperation. Their findings showed that cooperation at the cost of personal gain is instinctive to our human nature; that “our gut response is to cooperate — but given more time to think the logic of self-interest undermines collective action and we become less generous.”
If we truly listen to the little voice inside of us, the one that answers before our brain has a chance to enter the conversation, imagine where our hearts could lead us. More of us would be like Lawrence Lemieux and Meghan Vogel, reaching out our hands of generosity to a colleague or a competitor or a stranger in a park. Grades would matter less in school and instead virtues of loving kindness and compassion, joy for another and equanimity would be the hallmarks of a successful scholar. Boards of Directors would vote for fair salaries for all and redistribute profits to their local communities. Multi-millionaire sports figures would buy up every golf course and turn them into nature and village sanctuaries, where public parks and community gardens, shops and affordable housing would coexist side by side. And that game of the Amazon would make its way to the playgrounds and sports arenas of the world, maybe even as an Olympic event, unless there’s no need for that sort of thing anymore. Perhaps the hunger for competition and winning will evaporate like a veil of mist that has clouded our view of each other for far too long.
Here’s a little exercise to try. The next time you’re waiting at a traffic light or running a 10K race or in line at Starbuck’s, consider moving aside and letting that person who’s behind you go ahead, not for thanks or for something in return, but just as a simple act of kindness. The aim of compassion is not to win or to lose or to even tie; it’s to let go of the goal entirely. To recognize that nothing lasts, even gold medals, and the truest reflection of ourselves is in our humanity to another. That’s a finish line worth crossing.
Screen shot from YouTube video of Meghan Vogel