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Teamwork and Grace

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I found myself in an interesting conversation yesterday with a coeval—in fact, a high school classmate.


We were watching a hockey game involving our distant alma mater, the unlikeliest of fans and the unlikeliest of alumni lettermen in this sport—I the one-time manager and he the statistician. But there we were, sitting companionably in a warm room overlooking the rink, enjoying the game.

“How wonderful,” he said, “to be on a team, with all that good feeling and that sense of common purpose and common identity—all that spirit.”

Which is of course why we were there, having felt that in our schooldays to whatever extent such ancillary beings as managers and statisticians can.

But that feeling of common purpose, at its most exalted, in those moments when one’s own identity is subsumed in that of the group and its purpose, is a rarity, I suspect, for most of us, even when we’re teamed up for work or fun.

I recall years ago discussing the concept of sin with a Unitarian clergyman. Sin, he explained, is a turning of one’s back on community. Grace, he went on, is the embrace of connectedness and community. As an example, he suggested the moment in the 1980 Winter Olympic hockey tournament when the United States defeated the Soviet Union. What millions felt as they watched that game wasn’t political jingoism or sports partisanship—it was an uplifting of the spirits as we shared for a few instants the transcendent exhilaration of those young men’s impossible triumph, the victory of their spirit; for a few moments we shared and held that spirit. That, said the minister, was grace, the gift that humans are intended to understand, dimly, as an intimation of an immortal, ineffable force for good.

I can’t say that my friend and I experienced grace yesterday; in point of fact the game ended in a slightly disappointing tie. But I was reminded of why we join together in communities as schools and why we sometimes ask students—and why they sometimes ask us—to join together in teams, groups, and ensembles for work and play. It’s not just about lessons from sharing tasks or duties or learning to mesh our efforts with those of others. It’s certainly not about winning or losing, good grades or bad, although there are powerful, even transcendent, lessons to be learned from those experiences.

In the end, it’s about that feeling, whether it’s a divine gift or just a lovely aspect of human social psychology. We work together, strive together, and sometimes even suffer together because through this conjoined experience we may, on rare occasions, know that joy and shared identity that can only come from a common endeavor, deeply purposed and deeply felt.

I find myself mourning on a spiritual level for students in schools where exigencies of time and limited resources have pushed leaders to drop programs in sports and the performing arts. I sorrow for students prepping frantically, pushed by terrified teachers, for mandated standardized tests for which each child sits alone and where individual scores exist only as data points, where there are no teams, only aggegrates. 

Where, I ask, is the grace in that

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