There is No Competition

I might be going through a midlife crisis (MLC). A word that etymologically means, “the point at which change must come, for better or worse.” I remember that whenever I heard about MLCs growing up, I thought that whatever it was, it would never happen to me because the way MLCs are typically characterized, it didn’t look like any behavior that I would ever display. Buying a sports car, trying to go back in time, flirting, etc. That’s never been me anyway. But now, that I understand that this season can show up differently for different folk, I think that I might be having one Pedro style.

Although according to Wikipedia, MLCs don’t happen as often as popular media would lead us to believe, I do think there is something to the idea that at some point, whether it is actually midlife or not, some people start to reflect on their lives, and in that reflection, they might start to feel that the life they are experiencing and the life that they imagined are incongruent. And for most of us, that might be disconcerting. This resulting awareness in most people leads them to try to make life changes that bring them into congruence or to attempt to make up for what they imagine they are missing. What emerges then, comes out as an outpouring of their inner life.

What has come up for me is that I find that recently I am starting to despair of participating in some activities that I personally don’t value. Stuff like planning landscaping and reading the news to name a couple. All in all, according to what most people would call “exciting” I am an incredibly boring person with very little interest in doing anything more than reading, walking, and understanding the meaning of the story of Jesus.

For much of my younger life when people were focused on being popular, acquiring for acquiring’s sake, and seeking pleasure, I couldn’t really care less. Inherently, I am probably a person who could thrive as a monk. But, I didn’t grow up Catholic and never thought of it as an option. Additionally, I really didn’t want to live in some kind of cloister. I am not a roommate kind of guy. So I figured that perhaps I could be an inner monastic while outwardly appearing as someone that people perceived as “normal”. Recently I am starting to realize that I fooled myself. I’m starting to realize that society, likes their monks hidden from view. In other words, as long as I appear “normal”, people will assume that I have the aspirations that someone of my apparent contingencies would have. But the reality is I’m just a dude who’d just as readily be fine staring at water running down a windshield as I would doing most things. This is largely because I don’t really like playing the games that are considered par for the course in American life.

Thanks. But no thanks.

Since I’ve only read about monasticism and spent a couple of weeks at a Catholic retreat center, I am aware that I am not really qualified to compare myself to a monk. My imagination about what their lives are like is probably pretty off. But the idea that my mind gives the most weight to is the thought that they are–at a minimum–intentionally cultivating a way of relating to life that is not based on competition. I don’t know where I got that idea from. But, that is what I long for. I know that is probably un-American of me in some people’s minds. But that is really what I am tired of. Sadly, I can’t think of a way out of it.

Don’t Hate the Player. Hate the Game

Sometimes I wonder if there are many people who—like me—feel that the evolutionary benefits of competition have been exhausted and that what we have now is more of a cancerous society that is devolving at an increasingly rapid rate.

As I see it, we are so enamored with the false promises of competition, that we can’t imagine the possibility that not everyone is actively participating in the “game” that we imagine life to be. We practically force people to “play”. And to the degree that we resist, the system will—generally speaking—threaten our well-being in some form or fashion. And even more depressing than feeling threatened by an impersonal “system”, is the awareness that those closest to us most often cannot help themselves from acting as agents of the competitive system. Not because of any malicious intent on their part, but simply because they “know not what they do.”

Here’s an example from my own life demonstrating how people are essentially programmed for competition and often can’t help but see it even when it is not actively present.

Would you rather be happy or right?

One day I decided to go to the base bowling alley by myself. I didn’t even bother asking anyone to go with me. Boring, remember? I didn’t go because I was particularly into bowling or was trying to improve upon my skills. It was just spontaneity at work. I was going for a walk and stopped at the bowling alley and thought, “What the heck?”

I rented my shoes, picked a lane, and starting rolling the balls at the pins not bothering to look at the score or pay attention to how I was doing. Some balls knocked over some pins, some went into the gutter. None of them were a strike or a spare for the first couple of rounds. Then at some point, I started to pick up spares and then a few strikes. And as I kept going, I started to get them with some consistency. Truthfully, I was mostly curious about the progress rather than feeling anything like pride about it. But, despite that, a voice came out of nowhere saying, “I guess you’re happy now.”

When I looked over to my right, I saw a fellow Sergeant who was bowling a couple lanes over. Apparently, he had been watching me play the whole time. According to his estimation, he had been “beating me” for several rounds. But finally, in his mind, I had beaten him and now, because I was in competition with him in his world, I was undoubtedly happy to have beaten him.

“What are you talking about?” I asked
“You know what I mean. I was beating you. And now that you’ve caught up, I know what you’re thinking.”
“Dude, I didn’t even know you were there and I don’t care about losing to you or beating you.”
“How can you not care if you win?
“Because I wasn’t playing a game. I was just throwing balls and hitting pins.”

Needless to say, he didn’t get it and wanted to go one more round just to see who would win. I left. I wanted to tell him GTFOH. But I decided to just ignore him and take the lesson. He opened my eyes to the very thing that is distressing me now—that we are so conditioned for competition in this culture that we even see it when it is not there. And what’s worse, we will often practically force people to compete with us even if they are insisting that they would rather not.

For a while, I tried to figure out a way to extract myself from these situations and tried to create a life for myself that mirrored my ideals. But I soon learned that when something is systemic, it’s not that easy. Competition is embedded in our culture. And there’s no amount of will power that can beat out culture. That was one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned.

And don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that all competition is wrong or harmful. Like I admitted, I’m sure it has had some evolutionary usefulness. But, I think that where we are a species now, we would be better served and serve others better if we could work toward fostering the relational practices of cooperation and compatibility. The question is how? And sadly, I have to confess that I have no clue.

The closest theory that I have come up with so far is that to shift one’s consciousness to the point where one can rise above—using that word loosely—the culture at hand is that they must have an ideal that they are willing to live wholly into come what may. Hence my desire to “understand” the story of Jesus. Regardless of what people may think of him, the story itself expresses the decision of one to live into their professed ideal even upon the threat of death. Translated into what I am trying to share here, I see Jesus as saying, “Love the player, hate the game.” Like Neo from The Matrix lore, Jesus comes into the game only to help others get out.

I haven’t gotten there yet. I’m still waiting for Jesus to get me out or perhaps help me see my way out. He said he came to “set the captives free.” But he also said, “Take up your own cross and follow me.” So I guess that’s what I’m trying to do. Right now the cross I need help bearing is getting myself to a place where I can rest in the knowledge that the game is so impersonal that no matter what happens, I can’t take its effects or the acts of its agents, like the bowler next to me, personally. That’s the first clear step I can see towards loving the players though having no love for the game. Beyond that, I can conceive of having a mindset that holds that the “state of competitiveness” is built upon an illusory foundation and is thus effectively unreal. Still not there yet. So one step at a time. In the mean time, I will practice the nature I feel the poem below expresses. It is called Me and it pretty much sums up what I see as the trajectory of my journey here.

Emerging from Nowhere
Participating in everything
Desiring Nothing
I walk Alone
With everyone

This and other poems can be found on my poetry blog,

2 replies »

  1. Beautiful reflection, Pedro! Thank you for sharing. In your willingness to put yourself out in the world the way you have, you inspire others to do the same.


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