It’s baseball season! And since I live in Houston, the home of the current World Champ Astros, for whom I just bought a new team shirt and am anxiously awaiting the chance to go to a game at Minutemaid Park, I find myself contemplating the concept of sport. Of Competition. I wonder how much we Americans are conditioned to Competitiveness and how much is innate. Clearly, some element of Competition has existed in humanity before there was even organized society. Cain Competed with Abel for Adam’s esteem, spilling blood to be the favorite. The Greeks held magnificent athletic and artistic Competitions in the original Olympic games. Who was Alexander but the most Competitive general to lead an army?
So I don’t really have a problem with Competition. It is a necessary force that pushes humanity to make new discoveries, chart new frontiers, and achieve excellence.
But sometimes I wonder why we have seemingly made everything here in America about being the best. We give trophies and tiaras to four year olds who prance and priss better than the other little girls. We pit students against each other in spelling bees in first grade so that the adept learners can lord it over the ones who are a little (or a lot) behind. We award trophies to kids for being on a sports team, making the trophy the desired end, rather than emphasizing the lessons learned about sportsmanship and personal physical fitness.
It is a mentality that permeates every single aspect of American life. We rate our movies according to top box office gross every Monday morning. We look at the cars next to us at the red lights and either pat ourselves mentally or grit our teeth in envy. We slave endlessly (or pay yard workers to) so that we might put that “Yard of the Month” sign in our front yards. Most women eyeball each other in the mall, comparing rear ends, wrinkles, and wardrobes. We brag about our kids’ grades on bumper stickers. It’s in our schools, our churches, our businesses, our neighborhoods.
Even when the cause is worthwhile we compete. Weight loss competitions abound in businesses. Companies use competition as a marketing tool, cloaking it in contests for charity. For goodness’ sake our kids even compete for medals to see who can read the Bible best (how in the world we American Evangelicals could have imagined that children showing each other up is a Jesus thing is just incomprehensible to me)!
So no wonder we Americans believe we live in THE BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD! Most of us have never visited any other country, but our Competitive conditioning tell us it must be so. That ideology was a deciding factor in our most recent presidential election. Competition, not competence. Supremacy over alliance.
I don’t think I really am very Competitive by nature, though I think growing up in American culture can impart a pretty fierce dog-eat-dog mentality in all but the the most passive . I could never enjoy the fierce push to win at team sports, it seemed a silly waste of mental energy to me. When we had to shake hands and say “Good Game” I just wanted to make friends with everybody. I didn’t enjoy the All State Choir audition process in high school. I enjoyed the singing, but not watching some girls cry whose names were not called out. When our class elected its top ten most popular senior girls, I was #12. I watched as girls strategized and agonized about getting on that list, and I could not have cared less about that vote. I was surprised I got as close as I did. One of the top ten boys, Kevin R., told me in my yearbook that I could have been so popular if I had just tried a little harder. As a young adult I couldn’t have cared less about having better stuff than my peers. Still don’t.
As a theatre teacher, I found myself immersed in the arts, and Competition was probably one of my least favorite aspects of the job. Year after year I watched my students create beautiful work onstage and backstage. They were full of pride in their accomplishment. They gloried in the story they had told and they knew they had learned and grown in their craft as well as in their humanity. Then the trophies and medals got handed out and the kids without gold sparkly things suddenly doubted everything they thought about the art they had created. As a director, I had begun to start thinking cunningly, plotting for a win rather than for learning. Principals like it when you can set a trophy on their desks.
Irony of ironies, now that I am no longer a full time theatre educator, I serve as a judge at those very competitions. I go into those days with the goal of teaching and edifying the kids. Most of my judicial colleagues do, too.
I did discover that once the competitive element of trophies was introduced into my local community theatre stomping ground, much of my joy in that hobby was lost. I don’t get involved any more. I guess I have had one too many conversations with people who introduce themselves with their number or trophies, or who find ways to work their victories into conversation.
I am all for excellence. Anyone who knows me well knows I do not tolerate laziness or mediocrity. I used to lay that burden on others. I held everyone to my standards. Then I let go, and just held myself to a constant and unrelenting expectation of quality. That exhausted me. Through my practice of yoga, I have learned that winning has its place, but so does failure; that excellence is a worthy goal, but sometimes relenting and just being is just as worthwhile.
I envision a world where kids play on rotating sports teams, drawn by lotto. Everyone works out and plays together and switches teams to make new friends and team parties at the end of the season include the whole league in one great big bouncy castle. The top spellers help the ones who are having a hard time. The beautiful popular girls hang out with the regular girls doing stuff completely unrelated to fashion, makeup, and boys. Neighbors come together to help each other with their yards. Plays are not pitted against each other in UIL, so that students and directors can come together and share their work and inspire each other without worrying about medal count, and Americans take the time to learn about all the beautiful countries and societies that populate our planet, appreciating cultural and religious diversity without feeling somehow disloyal to the States.
I may not be the thinnest or most beautiful woman, most talented performer, best mom, winning cook, or most decorated high school director. Fortunately, I now know (at least 80% of the time) that it just doesn’t matter. What I am is a human being discovering her own path, knowing that her path is not a race track. There is no medal for winning at the end. There is only the love we leave behind as our legacy, and there’s no blue ribbon for that.