There has been some discussion among my friend of late, on the subject of competition. One friend, a woman of a lovely, spiritual bent, insists that it is unnatural and that humans are wired to work cooperatively for the greater good. Another, more pragmatic type counters that we need only look to Darwin for proof that those who rose early and snagged the food were able to keep their families alive and capable of continuing the gene pool. My feelings on the subject are so complex that I basically withdrew from the friendly debate and retreated into my own tangled pile of conflicting beliefs.
I have always found the idea of competition to be vaguely disgusting; the utopia in my rich fantasy life involves the sharing of resources, and the assurance that if I have a piece of the pie, I will distribute it, from crust to berry, onto the extended plate of anyone less able to fight for their share. I have flirted with Socialism, and even Communism at times, mainly because behind their serious flaws as political models, they hold out the promise that there is enough for everyone, and that those who can’t or won’t compete will have what they need to survive. It is also an important concept in Buddhism that desire causes all suffering. By logical extension, wanting less means accepting what is readily available, and not striving to get anything more or different. On this peaceful island of thought, the one with a single Bodhi tree and an array of conch shells thrown up daily by the sea, competition is unnatural, unnecessary, and probably immoral.
There are, however, other islands. No matter how much I claim that I am “not competitive,” that I don’t care if I win the Scrabble game, the Editor’s Pick or praise for having the “best” idea in a meeting, I crave the win. I cover it up, like a junkie wearing long sleeves, but it isn’t hard for me to see my connection to my Neanderthal ancestors rising early to kill the biggest animal. I like to win, I like to be the best, I like the attention, the rush, and the sense of invincibility that comes with besting other people. It isn’t admirable, but I think it may be very natural. I have feared competing, I have chosen not to compete in order to avoid conflict, but when the time is right, and it’s my choice to enter the fray, it’s a narcotic. On the craggy promontory of that island, where I climb the rocks to the highest point to watch my competitors struggle up through pounding spray and precarious footholds, I am what I really and truly am: an animal.
It hasn’t escaped my notice that those who are open about their love of competition are often very successful. Not all of them are evil capitalist swine or the dictators of small nations, either. For every Robber Baron or Amin there is a writer, a lawyer, or a scientist motivated by getting the contract, winning the civil rights case, or finding a cure for cancer. Often, those struggles for primacy involve teamwork, a cooperative effort like a sports team. (There is, after all, no “I” in team). That makes me think that the desire to compete and win can be harmonized with the benefits of cooperation, and indeed, I have felt the Kumbaya moment when a group comes together to accomplish a goal, identifies the strength of each member, and lets them do their thing for the greater good. The gold standard of competitiveness is making something better not only for oneself, but for those lacking the skill, drive or energy to fight.
Even as I write those words, sounding all noble and conclusory, I know that I am not so much a gracious team player. I like to compete and win all by myself, and to be recognized. When I fought City Hall on behalf of a neighbor, I really did want him to be protected from the construction of a rental monstrosity on the adjacent lot, but I also really, really wanted to beat them. When I represented clients, I sincerely wanted them to be treated justly and to receive the benefits to which they were legally entitled, but I also enjoyed the process of making my case, setting up traps for my opponent, and…winning. I am competitive, and I do want things. Not material things (although I want them, too) but good feeling-y things that make me high. I want to know all the “Jeopardy” answers, I want to finish the test fastest and get the highest grade, I want to be the funniest, smartest, best, kindest, and generally better. Scratch this bleeding heart liberal and you see the outlines of a raging elitist.
My answer, then, my position in the Debate-I-Would-Not-Enter, is that competition is entirely natural, and not all bad. It matters to me not one bit whether I “win” something for myself, or on behalf of another; in fact I generally prefer to battle as an advocate. Maybe, if I can call this particular spade a spade and stop pretending that I have no teeth or claws, I can let loose the energy I expend pretending that I don’t care who wins. I do care, and if it’s all the same, I’d like it to be me. If I use my powers for good, bounding down the craggy cliff of solipsistic success to pull up those who lag behind, I can be the Best Helper. Then, maybe, I’ll kill us a wooly mammoth and pound my chest before I create a prize-winning pot of Spicy Mammoth Curry.