An inquisitive BahaiTeachings.org reader wanted to know: is competition unholy?
Here’s his whole question:
This one is almost silly as I know that I know the answer, but it’s another one I can’t get off my mind. Is competition unholy? I say this in reference to sports and games. I play two sports, hockey and kendo, and love competitive games, but the question of competing against someone else has been on my mind.
The word holy usually means spiritually pure or sacred, and the word competition usually means a rivalry, a contention or a match of some kind. On the surface, yes, they can definitely seem incompatible.
Of course, when competition requires striving for excellence, it can have a positive effect by challenging us to simply do our absolute best. In sports, in academic study, in the promotion of courage, endurance or any kind of achievement, that individual endeavor can lead to a praiseworthy sense of accomplishment and personal development.
Competition can bring out the best in us, as long as we don’t allow it to appeal to our lower nature, and result in anger or hatred.
But if that happens, and a hyper-competitive focus on winning at all costs causes a direct loss to others, then competition can produce extremely negative results. In violent sports, for example, excessive competitive pressures can and do produce pain, injury and even death. No competition is worth that cost.
In the world of business, and in the arena of international relations between countries, competitiveness can also generate economic battles that harm people, as well as real flesh-and-blood battles that kill people. That strife, the Baha’i teachings say, can only be relaxed, rectified and reconciled by a gradual, loving application of love, unity and harmony:
Today all the communities of the world are engaged in fighting and quarrelling with each other. There is a religious strife, a sectarian strife, racial bias, patriotism, political contentions, commercial competition, industrial rivalry and a battle to defend their honour.
In reality these strifes are continual, and there is no cessation or interruption thereto. Now consider ye with what power and strength, love and devotion, union and harmony, happiness and joy the friends of God must arise, so that they may reconcile and crystallize together these different fighting and quarrelling communities. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 1, pp. 2-3.
In the modern world, the Baha’i teachings say, we need an increased level of cooperation and union to “crystallize together these different fighting and quarrelling communities.” The question then becomes: How do we bring about an increased level of cooperation between people?
If we still exhibit the hyper-competitive, survival of the fittest mindset we had when we lived in caves, then the old physical laws of self-preservation and competitive rivalries will continue to drive our relations with each other. But if we transcend those old physical laws—the laws of the jungle—we can begin to build a new human civilization, one based on the consciousness of our interdependence and cooperativeness.
That sense of growing unity, the Baha’i teachings say, represents the underlying spirit of this new era in human development:
To accomplish this great and needful unity in reality, Baha’u’llah appeared in the Orient and renewed the foundations of the divine teachings. His revelation of the Word embodies completely the teachings of all the Prophets, expressed in principles and precepts applicable to the needs and conditions of the modern world, amplified and adapted to present-day questions and critical human problems. That is to say, the words of Baha’u’llah are the essences of the words of the Prophets of the past. They are the very spirit of the age and the cause of the unity and illumination of the East and the West. The followers of His teachings are in conformity with the precepts and commands of all the former heavenly Messengers. Differences and dissensions, which destroy the foundations of the world of humanity and are contrary to the will and good pleasure of God, disappear completely in the light of the revelation of Baha’u’llah; difficult problems are solved, unity and love are established. For the good pleasure of God is the effulgence of love and the establishment of unity and fellowship in the human world … – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 313.