One of the buzzy books of the past year was Sayaka Muraka’s Convenience Store Woman, which follows a woman in her mid-thirties who has never really fit into society, but who finds comfort and belonging in her work at a convenience store. The book is a fascinating exploration of social expectations and what it means to find your place in the world. And, as it happens, it is a great example of someone wrestling with the character trait I’d like to explore this week, which we’ll call Teamwork.

I say “which we’ll call Teamwork” because there doesn’t seem to be a great English word to capture the character trait positive psychologists are trying to describe. The original research on which the work of the VIA Institute on character was based called it Citizenship. Other suggestions have been Loyalty or even Patriotism. These are obviously more complicated  ideas than the “working well together” that Teamwork connotes. The idea that connects these different traits into one seems to be the idea explored in Convenience Store Woman: the ability to function as part of a larger whole, no matter how big or small that whole may be: a family, a team, a community, a country, a culture, or the cosmos.

This is interesting because, while the Christian tradition doesn’t say much about Teamwork, it does say a lot about being part of a whole. Specifically, the most pervasive metaphor in the New Testament for the Church — the community of the faithful — is that of “the body of Christ.” The idea is that Jesus is the head — the brains and guiding force — of a body, of which all Christians are a part, each with their own function. As the Apostle Paul explains it:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body … Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. (1 Cor 12.12-18)

The question isn’t whether we are a part of the whole but what part we are and what our function is to be within this community.

We in the West today live in a culture that prizes individuality more than belonging. This has certainly not always been the case, and is pretty rare as far as cultures go. There are definitely many advantages to a worldview that prizes the person and our individual contributions, but I think if we’re honest we’ll recognize that something is lost there too. What this character trait and what the Christian teaching on the Body of Christ demonstrate is that as much as we may prize our individuality, something is missing if we can’t figure out how or where we belong in groups. We may rightly not want to be reduced to being cogs in society’s machine or to have our roles dictated by society’s expectations, but yet struggle to find a sense of happiness and wellbeing if we can’t figure out how to be part of that machine.

This touches on the pathology of absence of this trait, a sense of not knowing how to function in the group. I’m reminded again of Convenience Store Woman, as the protagonist’s struggle with this pathology is the main conflict of the book. My team at work went through a similar identity crisis last year. We were formed from bits and pieces of other teams and do very diverse work. It took time and effort for us to understand who we are as a group and what our function together is within the organization, and until that happened, our collective morale was low. No one likes to feel like the leftovers!

The opposite of Teamwork as defined here could be thought of in several ways. I could imagine the “rugged individualism” represented by so-called John Wayne Syndrome being the opposite of Teamwork: this is not just not feeling a part of a larger whole but actively rejecting the whole. Related to this would be something like ostracism or alienation: being or feeling cast off from the group. We’ve all been there, whether from losing a job or after a break up or not being accepted by a community we love. It’s natural to experience these feelings of alienation, but if we aren’t careful, it can become an identity, and when that happens it can become pathological. 

Similarly, I can think of a couple different pathologies of excess for Teamwork: One might be chauvinism or tribalism, valuing your own group at the expense of others. Racism, misogyny (or misandry), and nationalism would fit in this category. Interestingly, from an integral perspective, since human development involves an expanding circle of empathy, this kind of ‘excess’ of Teamwork is also in its own way an absence of it. (This is why it’s pathological!) A different kind of excess of this trait might be seen in a lack of personal accountability, identifying so much with the group that one fails to see one’s own agency.  (The two are different, but not unrelated, since chauvinism often involves subsuming one’s own critical thinking and agency to the groupthink, as though the decision’s of one’s organization or country are not to be questioned.)

So, how might we increase the trait of healthy Teamwork in our life? Some suggestions might be to:

  • Do a group visioning exercise with your team at work or your faith community. (In the story I mentioned above about my team at work, this is what helped us develop a sense of identity and purpose as a team.)
  • Volunteer in your community.
  • Join a recreational sports league.

That’s all for this week; may we all remember that we’re better together.

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