There's a telling scene in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, the story of a seven-year-old chess champion, Josh. His coach tells him, "You have to have contempt for your opponents. You have to hate them." Josh responds, "But I don't." "They hate you," the coach continues. "I don't hate them." "Bobby Fischer held the world in contempt." "I'm not him."

There's another telling scene in the documentary Spellbound, now in theaters. Neil is a finalist in the National Spelling Bee. When his mother is asked how the family is handling the pressure, she replies, "When you fight in a war, everybody has the same goal."

In Part 1 of this consideration of American culture in wartime, we looked at how "reality shows" on television mirror our need to deride, demean, and judge each other. But it's not just the media creating our adversarial culture. Conflict is being set up through competition and a societal preference for winners. And when we don't have games to set ourselves apart, we do it by gossiping about each other.

Here are some readings and movies that can help us recognize these pervasive influences in our lives and some practices to help us deal with them.


  • Alfie Kohn on the Case Against Competition
    In No Contest Alfie Kohn argues that our hypercompetitive culture reinforces winning at any cost, setting up a vicious circle that makes us feel justified in breaking the rules and hurting other people. Contrary to the widely held view that winning is worth it, "the higher the concentration of competition in any interaction, the less likely it is to be enjoyable."
  • Mariana Caplan on the Way of Failure
    Society stresses winning but loss and failure can be great spiritual teachers. Loss can provide us with something that nothing else can. But first we must be willing to "play" our losses, rather than give up and forfeit the game.


  • Spellbound: The Role of Competition in Young Lives
    This documentary captures our competitive society through the lens of the National Spelling Bee. It focuses on eight children in the finals, revealing the incredible role competition plays in their lives. Although their parents would never admit it, rather than building character, this contest sabotages self-esteem and turns playing fields into battlefields.
  • Searching for Bobby Fischer: A Moral Mentor
    This film, based on a true story, follows a young chess prodigy through the world of tournaments. We see the parents' and teachers' emotional investments in winning and the impact on the children caught up in the competition. But the real drama in the story is seeing how young Josh remains true to himself despite the pressures to be otherwise. He refuses to sideline the sensitive and compassionate side of his soul.
  • Gossip: Spreading Rumors for Entertainment
    This movie is a modern day morality play about the harm that can come to people who are victims of gossip. Three university students decide to tell a malicious story and then track its travels and permutations. Targeted for the youth audience, this thriller vividly reveals the destructive power of words.
  • A Cry in the Dark: The Fallout of a Rush to Judgment
    This docudrama is about one of the most controversial murder cases in Australian history. After their baby disappears in the outback, rumors spread about the parents' possible culpability. They are a religious couple, and their persecution takes on the characteristics of a witch trial.


  • Michael Strassfeld on The Evil Tongue
    Jewish tradition has a lot to say about gossip — both the spreading of falsehoods and even true stories. Gossip destroys and separates. Indeed, it is often used as a way of creating and defining groups. To stop it, simply ask the question, "Is this information I am about to pass on really necessary?"
  • Rami Shapiro on Thoughtless Speech
    A Hasidic story about a town gossip reveals that it is not so easy to take back something you have said. Being mindful of speech is a spiritual practice. So is making amends for setting in motion harmful things.

We want to thank all of you who wrote encouraging words about our decision to continue this e-course after the open hostilities in Iraq were declared over. We'd like to share two comments — both examples of spiritual literate readings of current events — about other kinds of wars going on in our world.

Dear Frederic and Mary Ann,

I am very grateful that you are continuing this course. The "war" is definitely not over; it will not be until there is peace, not just in Iraq, but beginning in ourselves and extending to the world.

I read this lesson in the shadow of an incident in the Chicago area this past week, the "Powder Puff" initiation-hazing event held by Glenview High School in a forest preserve. Videos of this have been shown around the world, and justifiably shocked people. That whole event was certainly a "gladiator sport" event — drunk teens entertained "by watching people deride, demean, and judge each other" and beat and physically abuse others and subject them to the grossest indignities. Educators and psychologists have explained away this whole thing. The media, while appearing shocked by this whole thing, is again appealing to the same thing that these reality shows appeal to.

(Sister) Carole Mary Capoun

Dear Mary Ann and Frederic,

Somewhere near each of us it is always wartime. How many millions are there around us who appear to live ordinary lives yet do not live in safety even in their own homes? How many millions around us live in a land that is full of plenty and yet are hungry? How many millions live the "good life" and yet live in desperate spiritual hunger that is numbed with all sorts of substances and/or behaviors that further separate us from God and the person whom God longs for us to be. How many millions of us believe ourselves to be "good people" yet perpetrate emotional violence or verbal abuse so that we can be "strong leaders" or so we can "keep a lid" on a situation that makes us anxious or to maintain our vision of our own self importance? How often do we lust for power and the spoils of our little wars while we strew the battlefield behind us with the spiritually murdered victims of our hubris? How often do we become those who perpetrate this violence on us by "passing on" our wounds and woundedness to others all the while being completely unaware of what we are doing? I don't have to go very far at all to find wartime.

Thanks for the raised consciousness and the encouragement and the tools to help me grow. Peace to you and yours,

Maia Butler, Baton Rouge, LA

Thank you, Sister Carole Mary and Maia for your thoughts. We'd be interested in hearing what others of you feel about this topic.

Salaam, Shalom, Peace,

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat