By TOPPER STEINMAN
We are weeks removed from the 2012 Summer Olympics. We are weeks away from the 2012 presidential election. Both events stir the emotions for many of us. Elements of competition are evident. Elements of cooperation, though less evident, become marking moments. Let me cite the Olympic example of Kirani James of Grenada besting double-amputee bladed runner Oscar Pistorius of South Africa in a 400-meter preliminary race and then trading name tags and a hug as a symbol of respect and a cooperative spirit midst the moment of Olympic competition. Politically, reference the recent Democratic National Convention where former President Bill Clinton spends valuable minutes in his DNC address eloquently affirming the important role that cooperation needs to play in our competitive political landscape.
I think we know how to do competition OR cooperation. I just don't think we know how to combine them. And I think the effective combination of competition AND cooperation is necessary to the survival of our species. Follow the thoughts.
We can compete. Read a history book. We competed and beat the British. We competed and banned slavery. We competed and women won the right to vote. We competed in this four-year spat of mid-term elections and Republicans gained control of the House. History and politics are replete with competition. It is a cornerstone of our democracy and of our capitalistic system of economics. Certainly, competition does not stop here. Globally, we compete over nuclear arms and oil and money and power and turf. Competition is fundamental to our time-honored addiction to sports. Our nation's schools have been challenged to compete with No Child Left Behind legislation producing teach-to-the-tests processes. And it would appear that competition has a very rooted place in the sacrosanct arena of religion where we preach peace and love yet somehow get mired in the dissonance of competing values and beliefs. Small bouts of congregational frustration and large bouts of regional and world wars are borne of competitive not cooperative efforts in the name of religion. The competitive list appears endless, even natural, in the biological and life experience clock that seems to be in each of us.
On the other hand, we can cooperate. Here, evidence also abounds. Check out our "help Haiti" fundraising efforts; our Thanksgiving and holiday gestures with those less fortunate; our too-numerous-to-mention school and community organizations who do this and that for these and those time and time again in the spirit of helping others; our family and neighborly gestures of love and support where random acts of kindness are plentiful. Really, we are also wired to cooperate and it is a beautiful thing to witness — on both the giving and the receiving end.
We just don't seem to be able to put competition and cooperation together. They come to us as close cousins, yet all too often, they and we end up sitting on parallel or colliding paths. Check the evidence: Politically, we live in one country yet frequently and divisively we sit at opposite ends of the liberal and conservative spectrum. We might be two parents in one family yet we'll slide to opposite sides of the family table where notions like "I know how to parent/cook/clean/drive and you don't" give birth to many family skirmishes. Our value base in this diverse country is fraught with opposing messages and competing sides — reference abortion, homosexuality, immigration and war. It seems in most of these aforementioned political, family and life zones of compete/cooperate "ne'er the twain shall meet."
Let me offer some humble thoughts and insights on how we might right the sinking ships of competition OR cooperation and join the cause of competition AND cooperation. Here are a few ideas to think about when things and people push our reflex buttons to compete and win at all costs:
— Leave our egos at the door. Though it's incredibly difficult to do, when personal and group differences exist, focus on we not me rhetoric and actions.
— Bring a spirit of resolution not dissolution to the compete AND cooperate table. This spirit, then, can translate into behaviors that allow us to listen to each other; to speak respectfully and honestly about the differences between us; to seek common or compatible ground upon which we might craft an agreement; to look at a variety of solutions to our disparate issues none of which might be exactly what one wants but some of which might be of benefit to both of us; and we must act on our agreement(s) with integrity and commitment not for the benefit of self but for the betterment of the whole of the people and the issues involved.
— Finally, be willing to get off our positions — I'm right, you're wrong; I'm smart, you're stupid; I win, you lose. We must focus less on the idiocy of each other and more on the issues and the interests at hand to include those about which we disagree to find even some small element of common ground. In this regard, we might be well-served to tune down or turn off the poison of talk radio, the barrage of mass emails that speak to dividing us and the drama of reality TV shows that heighten emotions and seem to create a new style of how people should speak and act.
With the above in mind, we stand a chance to move beyond our differences and our dissonance into more humane turf. Is it easy? No. Is it possible? Yes, but it requires incredible effort and persistence toward getting along rather than getting even or getting ahead at all costs. Our present-day mire with competition at the expense of cooperation in our politics, our religions, our schools, our communities, our businesses and our families will continue to diminish our spirits, our resolutions and, in turn, the quality of our lives. The combination of competition AND cooperation will lead each and all of us to a higher ground. It is a just and worthy cause.
Topper Steinman is an educational consultant in Champaign. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.