Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Whose race are we running?

This is the third stop on a blog hop for Chris Lowney's latest book, Make Today Matter: 10 Habits for a Better Life (and World). Find the rest of the tour here.

"Compare and despair, that's the advice I got," noted the young Jesuit novice across the table from me. A group of us were having coffee and a last conversation before beginning the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  We were nervous and uncertain of what lay before us in these thirty days in silence. Whatever God wanted for each of us during these days and over the next years, it would be different.

Almost a decade later, those words have returned to me again and again.  I have offered them to students worried about their progress in a course relative to their peers, murmured them to myself when looking at a piece of writing that was nowise as good as that essay by...stopping each of us in our tracks.

Last weekend, reading Chris Lowney's latest book, Make Today Matter, I scribbled "compare and despair" in the margins of the section on his third habit:  "Don't win the race, contribute to the (human) race." When we focus on winning, on besting those around us, we are never quite content with what we have. Someone always has more.  More money, more time, more honors. So we compare ourselves, and come up wanting, despairing of what we haven't achieved, rather than rejoicing in what has been given to us. Turn it around, suggests Lowney, and look not to get more, but to do more. To consider making the next move not one that positions you to move up, but makes the world a more just and a more loving place.

Science can be pretty competitive at times, no one wants to have their research scooped by another group barreling down the same road.  But another weekend read reminded me again what winning could mean.  The abstract for a feature article in the latest issue of Chemical Communications ended by noting that the translation of this chemistry "into real-world applications, starts to demonstrate the power of this approach, and its potential to transform the world around us for the better." Prof. David Smith goes on in the article to explain why he shifted his research to tackle fundamental questions in supramolecular chemistry from a different perspective: "[E]xplaining to someone with a life-limiting condition that you are using all of your skills to understand how peptides interact with one another in toluene somehow felt inadequate."  There were many directions he could have taken with his initial groundbreaking work, some more likely to "win" the science race than others, but he chose to seek a win for all of us, not just himself.  Something that might make this world a more loving place.

As I start to plan for the summer's research and writing, and my work with students next fall, I'm reminded to ask the question, not how many people will read this paper or cite this work compared to my peers, but what is the potential of this work to transform the world into a more just and loving place.  It's a good habit to get into.

Full disclosure, Loyola Press gave me a copy of this book.  You can watch a short clip about Habit 3 here and read a sample chapter or two here.

1 comment:

  1. In my mind you have made the world a better and more loving place just by posting this. I don't think that competition is inherently bad, though, as long as it is honest competition. When folks start faking lab results in order to be able to write a paper, that's a problem, but I also know that lots of people benefited from the race between Salk and Sabin and still do today.