I found myself in the Midwest recently, at a summer family reunion. Uncles, aunts, cousins and their kids were spread throughout a large conference room—a former high school gym, and I found myself conversing with the wife of a farming cousin. Somehow we got onto the topic of equality.
“I think we do our children a disservice when we tell them everyone is the same, and there are no winners and losers,” she stated. I reckoned she was addressing what she suspected were my own West Coast liberal biases.
“That’s simply not realistic,” she went on, “and it does not prepare them for life. That spoils children, and makes them believe they are entitled to everything just for the asking. Kids need to learn that not everyone can win, and if you want to win you are going to have to fight for it.”
This comment bothered me. Partly it was her mistaken association of equality with rewards. Equality to me means level opportunity, and equal standing before the law. It is not a suppressing of excellence or achievement. But clearly she thought that equality could erase valuable distinctions, and erasing value seemed threatening. At one level I do agree with her: gain and loss, winning and losing are inescapable facts of life that must be faced. On the other hand I am repulsed by the sports-ification of everything in American culture: something becomes meaningful only when it is placed in the context of a contest. And the ultimate goal is to win, often at any cost. This juvenile outlook is prominent in realms where it has no business—politics and law, where the value should be truth, not victory. And worst of all, we ‘play’ at the economy, and are glibly resigned to winners and losers. Yet the economy is not a game, but a life.
“Yes,” I responded to my cousin’s wife, “I agree that winning and losing have to be accepted. But in a game, the proportion is 50/50. What about the economy? What is fair? What happens when a very small percentage ‘wins’ and a very large percentage ‘loses’? Should we teach our children this is acceptable, too?”
“Oh, you mean, like, the one percent?” she replied, with a snide tone. “I don’t believe in redistribution. My parents are very well off, and they worked hard for what they have. They have achieved the American dream, and I don’t think they should be punished because other people have not. The government should not have the power to take from people what is their own.”
It strikes me as ironic that conservative Christians, who reject Darwin’s naturalism, readily sign-on to social Darwinism when it comes to the economy, and even theology. The reasoning seems to go, ‘Life is unfair. We are sinful people. There will always be winners and losers, that’s just the way it is. It is only liberal hubris, and its empty-headed idealism, that would challenge the order of things. On earth as it is in heaven. After all, there too, in the afterlife, some people go to heaven, some hell.’ When an evangelical author recently challenged Protestant theology about the reality of hell—a firestorm erupted. ‘What’s the point of being Christian at all,’ went the typical reaction, ‘if it doesn’t save you from damnation?’
If we only teach children that some win and some lose—But strive to win for god’s sake!—we are teaching a shallow lesson. And worse, we are nurturing a mindset that will, later in life, overlook and dismiss injustices that should be protested and corrected. As trite as the saying may appear, it is not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. There is something more important than measuring up to, or against, other people, whether that is for soccer goals or stock portfolios. At the core of life is a center unaffected by the games we play, unenhanced by winning, undiminished by losing. Call it the essential identity, or one’s fundamental personhood. What really matters is a contest for excellence within oneself, and in this there is room for everyone’s victory. But can we teach this to our children if we ourselves don’t really believe it?
The win/lose dichotomy in games is an artificial scarcity, built by design. It says in effect, ‘there is only enough for one winner, and the loser must go without.’ Without these emotional stakes, the fun and intensity of gaming would fall flat. But we go wrong when we extend this artificial scarcity into the social dimensions of food, clothing, shelter, education, health, occupation and safety. People should not have to ‘win’ their rights as people. It is a convenient, and thoughtless, step to neutralize the demands of equality with a tough ‘realism’ that glibly shrugs, ‘After all, not everyone can be a winner.’ Much of life may consist of contests, but life itself is no game. A person should not have to fight with his society for survival. Society itself loses the contributions and talents of individuals when their growth is suppressed simply because their family lost the economic ‘game.’