Rethinking competition

Elie Wiesel in his novel Night tells a harrowing autobiographical account of an adolescent boy and his father in Auschwitz. The following is an excerpt from the book.

One day when we had stopped, a workman took a piece of bread out of his bag and threw it into a wagon. There was a stampede. Dozens of starving men fought each other to the death for a few crumbs. The German workmen took a lively interest in this spectacle. Some years later, I watched the same kind of scene at Aden… A piece fell into our wagon. I decided that I would not move. Anyway, I knew that I would never have the strength to fight with a dozen savage men! Not far away I noticed an old man dragging himself along on all fours. He was trying to disengage himself from the struggle. He held one hand to his heart. I thought at first he had received a blow in the chest. Then I understood; he had a bit of bread under his shirt. With remarkable speed he drew it out and put it to his mouth. His eyes gleamed; a smile, like a grimace, lit up his dead face. And was immediately extinguished. A shadow had just loomed up near him. The shadow threw itself upon him. Felled to the ground, stunned with blows, the old man cried: ‘Meir. Meir, my boy! Don’t you recognize me? I’m your father… you’re hurting me… you’re killing your father! I’ve got some bread… for you too… for you too….’ He collapsed. His fist was still clenched around a small piece. He tried to carry it to his mouth. But the other one threw himself upon him and snatched it. The old man again whispered something, let out a rattle, and died amid the general indifference. His son searched him, took the bread, and began to devour it. He was not able to get very far. Two men had seen and hurled themselves upon him. Others joined in. When they withdrew, next to me were two corpses, side by side, the father and the son” (pp. 105-106).

Constantly the boy had to face the same struggle. Deep down he felt compassion to his dying father, and yet he knew as well, no matter wickedly, that a father was an excess load.

[The head of the block] put his great hairy hand on my shoulder and added: ‘Listen to me, boy. Don’t forget that you’re in a concentration camp. Here, every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else. Even of his father. Here, there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone. I’ll give you a sound piece of advice—don’t give your ration of bread and soup to your old father. There’s nothing you can do for him. And you’re killing yourself. Instead, you ought to be having his ration.’ I listened to him without interrupting. He was right, I thought in the most secret region of my heart, but I dared not admit it. It’s too late to save your old father, I said to myself. You ought to be having two rations of bread, two rations of soup…. Only a fraction of a second, but I felt guilty. I ran to find a little soup to give my father. But he did not want it. All he wanted was water” (p. 115).

Upon knowing the death of his father, he said, “I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears. And, in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched it, I might perhaps have found something like—free at last!” (p. 116)

I believe this novel speaks a lot more about facets of human existence. But one thing that I want to highlight here is competition. We see as competitors those whom we think are a threat to our own existence, our well-being.

When we see a painting by Van Gogh, for example, we, as laymen, know right away that he belongs to a different level. Our comparison stops at the beginning. He’s a world-class artist; I am not. But when we see an essay written by one of our classmates, we start to feel insecure, for we see her and us at the same level, and we start to ask, “If she could write such a beautiful essay, why can’t I? Didn’t she study in the same class as I, read similar books as I, but how could she produce such a piece, while I can’t?” She’s not a world-class essayist, and yet, we cannot help comparing and as we continue to compare, we are filled with envy. I must be better than her, or at least on par with her.

But is it true that “every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else?” Is it true that “everyone lives and dies for himself alone?” Even in a concentration camp as told in the story above, where seeing your own father as competitors may seem to be justified, where given the two choices: to dump your dying father and increase your chance of survival, or to try your best to preserve his life while killing yourself in the process, you seem to have no choice but to choose the first—even then, your conscience tells you that the above maxims are not true.

Rev. Billy puts the truth aptly when he says that the dialectical tension of man’s existence is solved in the joining together of universality and particularity in the body of Christ. It is one body, yet with many and distinct parts. Each part is unique. The apostle Paul paints this truth vividly in his first epistle to the Corinthians chapter 12. He expounds the same truth in his other epistles, such as in Ephesians chapter 4. “…grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” And “the whole body, … when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Each part is given its proper place. And that is for the benefit of the whole body, which in turn is also for the benefit of the part. In the body of Christ there can be no competition. There can be no perceiving others as a threat to our existence. By caring for myself and not thinking of anyone else, and by living for myself alone, am I saving myself? Am I removing threats to my own existence? The truth is, my existence is not my own. When I care for, think of, live for others, I am not losing, but gaining. When I contentedly and faithfully exercise God’s gift that is given me, I end up building the whole body, not me alone. There is no more to be said. The Bible already paints the picture of the body of Christ so wonderfully. I am afraid attempts to elaborate it more will spoil the picture.

Therefore, if God gives someone more talents than He gives us (if indeed we are justified to conclude thus, for often our pride hinders us of seeing ourselves as we are), instead of being envious, we should give Him praise for making such person wonderfully, and thanks for letting us live and see His wonderful and gracious gifts being exercised in that person. For if everybody else is inferior to us, how could it be possible for us to praise him more for the greater gifts He bestows in others?

And if God gives us more talents than He gives others (once again, if indeed we are justified to conclude thus), instead of being boastful, we should give Him praise for making each person wonderfully, and thanks for letting us live and use His given talents to serve others, diligently.

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