“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt
Sometimes, with some people, in some interactions or moments, we find ourselves overcome with a sense of unfriendly competition.
In some cases, we have come to expect this. We may be in perpetual, unfriendly competition with siblings or co-workers, maybe even our parents. At other times, we’re taken by surprise and don’t catch ourselves. We may meet a new friend and feel this way. We may see someone in a car, or a dress, or a restaurant we like and assume we know the score.
In the digital era, unfriendly competitive notions, it turns out, can arise at any time. The other person need not be physically present: we see someone’s #blessed vacation post on Instagram and we’re off to the races, the unfriendly competition has begun. Our brain, seeing this Otherness, this other reality constructed by another’s choices and abilities, begins to generate a story of comparison. Rather than simply collecting data, our brain - our ego, our small self - may rush to make us as either the winner or the loser.
Judgement and the speed with which we apply it often does not feel very good in our body. We may feel it low in our belly, a kind of ache, or tightly near our jaw and scalp. When our individual brain makes these comparisons, it strains, and we lose not only our own pleasure, but our ability to breathe easily, our ability to be easily. We feel stuck in our lungs and in our bodies and in our experience. We are uninspired on both sides of the equation.
When we’re the loser, these moments shine a light on the fortune, strengths, and abilities of Others. In these moments, we get a strong sense of our own shadow. Our insecure inner places feel exposed. Our fears of lack and unworthiness and inability ooze out from the deep places in a way that surely others must sense, will sense, and may decide to capitalize on!
Judgement rushes in to defend us - judgement of others, judgement of ourselves - as we panic at being exposed to (and exposing) the part of us that is weak. The part of us eternally shipwrecked on the beach: exhausted, weary to the bone, and yet still clawing to progress, grasping breath and shaky hands. This part of us is our will to succeed, our sense of righteousness, our perception of our own effort, of an individuated Me who lives in a world where there can only be One. And when someone else is the One, the winner, this small, individuated self is unworthy of experience, of life. This feeling can happen so fast that we don’t even notice it until it piles up over the course of our week or day into a sense of listlessness and malcontent.
On the other hand, sometimes the small self comes out large. Sometimes the small self wins. When we’re the winner, we are raised up above others by our perceptions of their inadequacies. Our beliefs are reinforced at the expense of the other person’s experience. No two experiences are alike, however, so this is a faulty method of placement.
Our value is not determined by something outside of ourselves or the individual conditions of our life. Our value is ultimately determined by our individual belief in ourselves, nothing else and nobody else can make us what we are without our consent. The world reflects to us what we believe about ourselves. “Winning,” while it affords a sense of confidence and the always fleeting feeling of surefootedness, that momentary lightness in the heart and body, again implies a sense of scarcity, which is the ultimate insecurity: the idea that only one person is doing “being” right, the idea that there is not enough to go around.
Both these experiences are only stories we tell ourselves. Everytime we feel like a winner or a loser, we’re creating a value experience that does not exist. Nature is neutral, our experiences are, at their core, neutral. It’s our storytelling that shapes our ideas of ourselves and how we experience our days.
Friendly competition exists. Friendly comparison exists. Both are rooted in compassion, and ability to see our Self in others. Friendly competition and comparison require us to value ourselves simultaneously as individuals and members of a collective whole. These states arise when we focus on the idea of life as play. Life is not a game you win, rather it is the mindless games of innocents. Patty cakes, tag, hopping around the forest. The thrill of motion for motion’s sake, the expansion through limitation into growth. Friendly competition allows the full joy of learning with another being while also honoring our unique circumstances. It requires us to not make others wrong without good reason.
Friendly competition is the art of wanting what you have, and wanting dearly for others to have what they want.
In a world of friendly competition and comparison, when we see someone succeeding we shout “YES!” We are happy, authentically happy, for the Other for their sake and for ours. We can hold in mind that this Other is a being just like us, with all the same fears and insecurities. Any “victory” is a victory for all. And when play makes us better at what we do, when good spirit and sportsmanship supersedes a need to exceed, we are all able to move more closely toward our goals and dreams. A rising tide raises all ships, after all.
We all have strengths and weaknesses. The purpose of the variety is to bring us together in teamwork. When we can humbly recognize where others are stronger, they have an opportunity to shine and teach. When we’re stronger in a skill or moment, we can be compassionate and gentle in showing others the way. Everyone you meet has something to offer you, and you have something to give everyone you meet. When we assume we know the story, when we compete, we miss these opportunities.
We will often have these thoughts, these judgments, these comparisons. This is a useful mechanism for survival. It isn’t a behavior we should stomp out - simply one we should try to notice. If we can pausing before we react, we view the world with a neutrality that frees us from some suffering. If we try letting ourselves respond to other people’s triumphs and tribulations without bringing our small selves into the equation, without storytelling about ourselves, then we begin to see the world as a genuinely interesting place.
A place where tons of strange things are happening. A place where people are doing interesting, curious things all the time. Some of the things those people are doing might be things we’d like to try and some we’re sure we could never attempt. This is okay. When each individual is empowered to pursue their experience on their own terms, the collective experience finds an opening for itself too. In this opening is a possible, profound shift for all beings toward happiness and freedom. A world of everlasting play and delight.