Cooperation Not Competition

By Ken Wells - 03/02/2021


Series Two: Blog Three

Competition is revered throughout the world by many.  To be a fierce competitor is considered a favorable trait. In sports individuals are judged by the kind of competitive spirit they demonstrate. Men who do not have a competitive spirit are considered less macho by many.  Some people judge that a competitive spirit determines whether or not someone is tough.  Certainly competition promotes improved results. Yet, the nature of competition creates a zero-sum mentality. There must be winners and losers. At a micro level, those who win are people judged as being successful, hard workers and worthy of reward. Often, those who lose are judged as the opposite. The end result is that those who “have” get more while those who “have not” have less. This mentality creates conflict in recovery. In recovery, competition takes what is and makes it less. The journey of the Twelve Steps is one of cooperation. It encourages that you practice taking what is and spreading it around for you and others, making it enough. Recovery is not about a race, a grade, or comparison. Everyone matters and the journey is not about an end goal, it is about progress. A cooperative spirit is one of the difficult mindsets for an addict to embrace who has lived life a maverick, determined to be independent and not show any weaknesses. In our western world when a group of people come together for any reason, inevitably there will be comparison and eventually competition for emotional space. It threatens the authenticity of every recovery group.

From a macro view, this mentality has created an intolerable gap of disparity and fueled greed throughout the world. The attitude that “more is always better” has not proven sustainable. We cultivate tolerance through a cooperative spirit. In a world of greed, cooperation is a necessary ingredient for tolerance to thrive and flourish. This spirit generates ideas and strategies that make our world sustainable. It is particularly true in a Twelve Step community. Bill W. once observed that “honesty gets us sober and tolerance keep us sober.” Tolerance is about accepting others for who they are. It goes beyond a grudging putting up with others and settles into a loving identification with those who are different. Twelve Step community cultivates an acceptance of our and others’ weakness, flaws, and failings. Competition fractures community whereas cooperation fosters connection. It underscores the acceptance of others who are different.

Being forced out of my comfort zone fuels parochialism and makes it difficult to accept others. It’s easy to become very narrow-minded. When I see the world only through my eyes, I become blind to the view and different experience of others. While there, I am liable to become locked into a power/control battle for supremacy. It’s easy to envision our world as my space versus your space. When we do this, we divide community into “us” versus “them.” This dynamic creates distance within community and accelerates intolerance and a lack of acceptance of others.

Starhawk, an American teacher, writer, and activist, delineates how power can diminish acceptance and warns against domination from those who embrace a power-over dynamic. She explains power-over as manipulators trying to get someone to do something against their will. It can take the form of positional power as in the patriarchal or matriarchal family dynamic, ecclesiastical hierarchy of a church or the military armed forces. Underneath destructive addictive behavior, addicts must often address the carnage of power abuse that was experienced during a vulnerable time in their lives. The ongoing tragic crisis of sexual abuse and harassment within the Catholic Church is another clear example of this form of power abuse. Positional power can be taken for granted by those who have it, yet rarely forgotten by those without.

Other forms of power include institutional, cultural and structural power. Institutional power activates economic, legal and political power which is directly wielded by institutions. Cultural power is the cultural norms, conditioning, and privilege regarding race, class, gender, age, and ability from the perspective of the dominant culture. From the perspective of oppressed people, cultural power is a consciousness of community, class and culture that serves to empower. Structural power can be covertly exercised within the context of dominant institutions. All of these forms of power over can disrupt acceptance of others who are different and block the reception of diverse people. These power dynamics fuel competition, minimize a spirit of cooperation and foster intolerance toward others.

Power over expresses domination and exclusion whereas power with others emphasizes the capacity to influence and take action by uniting with others through solidarity, community and cooperation. This measure of power comes from a vast resource of personal brilliance inside your wisdom, knowledge, experience, and skills. Accepting the differences of others supports tolerance and requires using the power with and power within skillset. This represents the core of Twelve Step community living.

Of course, it is problematic if not impossible to accept the differences in others if you cannot accept your own differences. Like many others, addicts engage in a momentous war around self-acceptance. An ongoing wallowing in the mud of past failure promotes self-hatred undermining self-love and acceptance. This unresolved struggle sabotages the possibility of tolerating others and obscures the possibility of making meaningfulness from the ordinary common place struggles in every-day experiences.

Historically, competition has fractured communities around the world. Grasping for power, position, and possession has always broken communities and has fueled wars throughout the ages. Making sure everyone has enough through egalitarian efforts has always resulted in peace in every corner of the world. The lure of competition in many ways can be likened to the magical power and fascination of “the Ring” with its mystical powers in the Lord of the Rings so described by author J.K. Rowling. It becomes an overwhelming lure to dominate others. It’s the glove of addiction turned inside out. Cooperation creates an atmosphere where it is safe to share weakness. In Twelve Step communities, addicts are encouraged to expose weakness and to share what they do not want to say. In such a setting addicts learn to appreciate rather than resent the strengths of others. When you do not share your weakness and vulnerability, others’ strengths become a threat to strive and compete against. Yet, when common brokenness is shared by all, vulnerability becomes the touchstone for connection. Another’s strength actually becomes a source of hope and encouragement to others who struggle with the same flaw and whose strengths may be different. In the context of shared weakness, different members’ strengths become a source of inspiration to all in the community. The result is a permeating tolerance that overcomes fractures in community living. It promotes active appreciation for the richness and variety of human beings who exist throughout the world. Through tolerance we all become connected in community.

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