The word itself quakes with urgency. It’s a jaw that clamps down immediately on your adversary—“Comp!”—and echoes the “petition” you must create to sell yourself more fervently to your onlookers than all of the other players in the game. The noun tingles with the potential for active response that the right stimulus will engage. Its spirit crouches in wait, ready to pounce. Before the word comes to a close, that unyielding “shun” sound declares its potency for causing isolation.
In the past, in conjunction with texts that center on the topic, I have asked my students to freewrite about the concept of competition. Time after time, the boys have flashed off vignettes that simulate the final breathtaking seconds of well-known professional baseball, football, and basketball playoff games from recent years. They have crafted sensory-rich portraits of exact moments when a hand closed around a Hail Mary pass or a puck sliced past a turning face mask and buckled a net. They have shut their eyes to savor the memories of electric satisfaction that zapped through their own bodies when they trampled on a peer to score either a goal or a girl. Their lips have curled and limbs twitched at the thought of a neck-to-neck battle in their current lives—a twin brother fighting them for a college-bound sister’s bedroom, for instance. Even the students focused on academic rather than athletic pursuits have written poems that relay their smoldering jealousy of classmates who manage to secure high grades despite their laziness: I spent three days on this paper and got a B. He wrote it at lunch and got an A. That’s not fair. In these poems, they have etched in ink their promises to themselves to study longer and harder, solicit extra help, sheepishly ask their mothers for an editing eye, anything to crack open the other kids’ fraudulence.
But in almost every case, those feelings of indignation have inspired them rather than daunted them. In their minds, competitiveness is not a curse. It is a catalyst that pitches them closer to everything they want to be.
“What if our society had no competition?” they have exclaimed, scooching to the edges of their seats and pumping their arms, revved up by the controversy. “No one would get anywhere. No one would ever want to get better. The world would never progress!”
True. They certainly wouldn’t have their iPhones or their COD Black Ops II.
As a teenage girl I was always dieting and forever fretting about the thickness and texture of my hair or the fairness of my complexion. An appetite for desirability and popularity brewed in my bones. While a competitive juice seemed to fuel boys’ ambition to grow stronger and more influential, to take physical action in order to outshine their antagonists, the same juice throbbed like an infection in my system. My friends and I kept each other bristling with insecurity by feeding passive-aggressive undercurrents to our relationships. We dared not speak the actual word, dared not assign motives to our feelings and our behaviors. We needed the option of denying our manipulative measures in case our plans for conquest blew up in our faces.
My freshman year in high school, one girl in my social circle used to wear all of her shirts tucked in because she knew that I never could—not with my pear-shaped figure. My sophomore year, I tutored a fellow student in Geometry, and my overachieving pal repeatedly offered to take over for me, her pride injured from the Math Department’s pass on her skills. (I secretly appreciated the blow to her elevated sense of self and relished the idea that I had earned the privilege of tutoring even though she flourished in advanced math classes while I toiled away in remedial. For some reason, geometric proofs appealed to my organized nature and I could churn them out in my impeccable handwriting like no tomorrow.) Junior year, I kissed someone else’s beau under the main staircase in the school lobby, understanding that his infidelity meant that I was prettier than his girlfriend, and not realizing that she was descending the steps over our heads and about to walk past us as we sank into one another. Senior year, my best friend, who was Asian, invited me to a party on the MIT campus hosted by a multicultural organization so that she would garner more attention from the gentlemen attending. As she used to claim, “Minority guys will always choose minority girls over white girls. That’s just the way it is.”
These days, I never feel the compulsion to keep up with the Joneses. My parents raised me to appreciate my blessings without resenting people who seemingly have more. I drive a Honda and shop at Marshalls. Any debt that I have amassed from shopping at Marshalls is the result of pure vanity.
I never play sports, community, backyard, or otherwise. In seventh grade I received a C in gym from “forgetting” my sneakers at least half a dozen times, a ruse that kept me off the honor roll.
In my profession, performance-based advancement does not apply. And I’m okay with that.
Once, in a UMass graduate English course on Boston and New York novels, a tiny dart of envy punctured my literary heart when my friend wowed the stuffy old professor into giving her an “A” while an “A-” sufficed for my suffering. But that feeling was temporary, and my friend is such a darling that I couldn’t stay miffed.
Competition: I’ve never liked it. I’ve never flung myself into its throes on purpose. I loathe playing the fool. If any chance flickers that I can be defeated, I withdraw. I don’t need to be made to feel incompetent. Stupid. Inferior. It’s better to be passive than to be a loser. I can’t let my opponent see my desire to win, to get ahead, because that’s vulnerability. If I expose that intention to clinch success, then my humiliation is guaranteed when I fail.
But whether I like it or not, that virulent sensation percolates in my gut, even at thirty-six. The kind of competition that I experience wages within me as opposed to without me, an ongoing skirmish between reason and frustration that produces countless interior dialogues that refuse to cease:
You’re this close to 37, which is this close to 40. Why, when you smile, do those dozens of crevices that ripple around your eyes surprise you? You could buy another capsule of L’Oreal Rénergie Eye cream for $75, or maybe stop smiling altogether…
You’ve struggled with your weight since you were seven. Your mother had a hell of a time finding a First Communion dress that fit your pudgy middle. You boasted the widest hips on your dance team. You wore black jeans summer after scorching summer to conceal your faults, ignoring the fact that wearing black jeans in the summer in the first place was the clearest clue to your dysfunction. You can continue gaining those last ten pounds, then losing them, then gaining them, then losing them, but your capacity for being happy with yourself is shrinking with every year that goes by, so how much time do you want to waste?
You’re a working mom. It’s acceptable that you might not want to style your daughter’s American Girl dolls’ hair or sit on the floor and play Lego army with your son when you walk in the door at four o’clock. You still love them more than your own life. But you should engross yourself in their needs at all times. Play. Stimulate. Educate.
You want to chase your childhood fantasy of writing manuscripts, eloquent and moving in their depictions of young women’s struggles with identity, that the publishing houses will scramble after you to buy. If so many others have reached this goal—some whose writing talent you have questioned—then the same opportunity must be within your grasp. But it’s also an impossible pinnacle. You have a stable income, a noble job. Stop deluding yourself. But don’t give up. Nourish your hopes that one day, your name will appear in the lineup on a shelf at Barnes and Noble.
Avoiding competition with other adults has come easy to me. I follow my own track, worrying little about where my friends fall on theirs. Essentially, we are all equal, now: dedicated wives, mothers, and fun-lovers, grateful for our educations and our healthful families. Some make raising their children their full-time work and support the household income and their own creative souls with part-time teaching, nursing, and nannying. One of my fellow teachers and closest mom comrades is pushing toward her PhD, all while throwing herself into fitness classes four times per week and cheering on her two children at softball games or day-long swim meets on the weekends. And yet, she always spends the time replying to my e-mails with paragraphs and paragraphs of witty and wise guidance. Another friend of mine, a math and computer science master, has advanced to the big time in California’s Silicon Valley. As a result, she has been able to back her husband’s graduate school plans and to help maintain her family’s financial security. She also exudes an unbeatably warm humility and down-to-earth realism.
I marvel at every one of their endeavors. I don’t know how they do it, whatever their “it” is. I don’t necessarily wish to hunt the same goals; I don’t think I want to seek a PhD, either in Education or English, or work in a corporate setting, even if it would mean a more lucrative salary and room for promotion. And perhaps they think about me, a full-time working mother of two who gives her free time to writing on purpose, about to leap into her third Masters program “for fun,” and shake their heads in wonder.
One of the benefits of growing older and growing up has been the release of all of those hang-ups that weakened my early relationships and made my placement in the world tenuous. I want my friends to get what they want, whatever their trajectories of success may be.
So why have I become my own worst enemy?