Me vs. we: A lesson from the Olympics

By The Rev. Jeremy Myers

Would you rather be the star player on a bad team or an unknown contributor on a championship team?

This is a question that was posed to me in my younger years and one that continues to creep back into my head from time to time. Given that we are in the middle of the Olympic games, it makes sense that the question would come to mind once again.

As armchair athletes, it’s easy to say we’d be perfectly content with any role on any team as it would constitute a significant upgrade from our current levels of involvement. But take a few steps further down the rabbit hole with me, if you will.

What if you were one of the individuals tasked with swimming a leg in a relay during prelims only to have a superstar like Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky step in to swim the finals and take the win while you watched from the stands?

Sure, you’d get a gold medal as a part of the team, and you might get a sign denoting your accomplishment at your local high school or at the entrance to your hometown. You’d be a champion, but you would also be a footnote on someone else’s legacy.

I’m always amazed and inspired as I watch U.S. swimmers step up, do their part and then silently slide to the background while wholeheartedly supporting and celebrating the accomplishments of the team, even as one star shines brighter and takes a disproportionate amount of credit. Those individuals have chosen the proverbial “we before me” mindset.

On the other end of the spectrum, consider the unmitigated mess that is U.S. men’s basketball. By every possible measure, they are the most talented team in the Olympics, yet they lost exhibition games to Nigeria and Australia, and they lost their first game of the Olympics to France. Even when they have won, they haven’t looked good.

Analysts and the athletes alike point to a general lack of chemistry and cohesion as the reason for the struggles. Is it really that much of a surprise, though? Many of these players have left one professional team for another because they wanted to be the unquestioned star and leader of their own team. They at times have chosen to go be the best player on a losing team, rather than a role player on a winning team.

There are more personal accolades and therefore more money in being the best player on a mediocre team than there is in being a role player on a championship team. It would appear in some cases, the team is simply viewed as a vehicle to enable some to be “all the me I can be.” In those cases, the outcome is less than desirable.

As I consider the two aforementioned examples, the answer to the question at the outset seems obvious to me. I would much rather be a role player on a championship team than the star player on a bad team. Winning gold quietly strikes me as a much better option than winning nothing and having to explain why.

In truth, though, the question isn’t really about winning and losing but about we vs. me. Are we willing to humbly submit our own preferences and priorities for the benefit of the broader group or would we sacrifice the betterment of the group on the altar to self?

The apostle Paul provides a picture that is worthy of our consideration in I Corinthians 12. He writes, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a member of it.” He notes that when one part of the body is honored, the whole body is honored, and when one part suffers, the whole body suffers.

The hard reality is that we need each other. It is impossible to “be all the me I can be” without understanding and valuing the “we” that surrounds us and supports us.

To some degree, we’re all role players. The question we have to answer is will we humbly and graciously play our part to assure the best possible outcome for everybody? Or will we selfishly pursue what is best for me, no matter the cost?

As my son wisely put it when I posed the opening question to him, “I’d rather be a role player and win. When the team loses, everyone loses. When the team wins, everyone wins.”