It has been revered by some as a virtue, and reviled by others as a sin. i suppose sometimes, like many things, it can be both, depending on the context. Without it we would likely not have many of our great historical figures: our athletes, poets, musicians, warriors, thinkers, leaders. And yet without it we would likely be devoid of some great ills as well, including theft, envy, slander, betrayal, and murder. i speak of that burn, that itch, that hunger known as competitiveness. Like most other human traits, it can be harnessed for our collective betterment or for our absolute destruction.
i had occasion to be offended at the appearance of this characteristic in recent days, and in someone very close to me: myself. Once a month some friends hold a poker game which for some reason they invite me to attend. Now poker in particular has always stirred up roots of competitiveness and frustration in my heart (then why do you play it?), and though i have managed to curb those tendencies for the most part over the years they will still manifest should the atmosphere be right. Part of the competitiveness stems from the fact that once upon a time, i was really a great player. i played three or four tournaments a week, ran a club out of my apartment complete with quarterly points systems, and played online for hours and sometimes days at a time. It is a widely held conception that one must log approximately 10,000 hours of time performing a given task before they will be considered an expert. i would be surprised if i wasn’t close to that amount. Over time and many years of playing, watching, and dealing poker, i allowed the notion to creep into my head that i was an expert, and that my opinion on how to play was at all times the best one.
i have not been a regular player in years now, and my skills are rusty. At most i play perhaps three or four times a year, and it is entirely for recreation at this point. But old habits die hard, they say, and it is not long before i find myself becoming frustrated by others’ bad decisions or by statistically irrelevant hands winning frequently. It is a small consolation that i no longer throw things, or visciously berate other players for their play when it has cost me, or stay up all night playing online. I feel the same tendencies, the same temptations, lurking underneath the skin and in the depths of the heart, and like any compulsion or addiction, it doesn’t take very much of a push to fall.
But it isn’t just poker that exacerbates the competitive instinct in me. As i have been mentally inventorying this behavior over the course of the day, i realize that it is there in many aspects of my life. In fact, it is present in some form in nearly everything i do. At work i am concerned when i am not the favorite or the top performer. At home i frequently seize opportunities to correct my wife, and love to half-jokingly point out whenever i am right (that is rare.) At school i remember always wanting to be the best student, until at some point i just shifted over to wanting to be the best actor, or the best musician, or the coolest kid.
Without some level of competition, obviously, no one would attempt to do anything. But at what level does it pass beyond the bounds of healthy and become idolatrous, bloated, and destructive?
One excellent guide as to whether competition is beneficial or harmful lies in its motivations. i hope to be able to adopt the following strategy: whenever i find myself being competitive, i must ask myself why i feel that way. What is it that i hope to gain by being the best? In most cases in my life, that thing has been approval and comfort. The acclaim of man and an easy life have been the driving forces behind most of my competitive nature. This becomes obvious when i analyze the particular endeavors at which i wanted to compete: acting, music, writing, poker, work. Success in any of those arenas equates very often to popular acknowledgement and wealth.
i would never assert that competition itself is bad. This would be a patently ridiculous claim. But there is a circular kind of spiral sin inherent in it that can be dangerous and difficult to see, just as in any desire. If i find myself envious of another, i will want to compete with him, and when i do this and do not succeed, i shall grow even more envious. It is plain to see that this is a road that cannot end well.
Lastly, i have a difficult time trying to imagine how to practice loving my neighbor as myself when all i want is to be better than him. After all, what is “better?” On what grounds do i even make comparisons? If anything, it seems fairly obvious that Christ had not only many opportunities but also the absolute right to assert himself as better than another. And yet all he ever did was humble himself and serve. In comparison with His success as a man, it comes off as rather petty (not to mention semantically nonsensical) for me to fight with another man about which one of us is less infinitely far from Him.
i conclude that right now the only person with whom i should be competing is the man i was yesterday. There seems little danger in attempting to be better than him, for it is roughly the equivalent of attempting to be a better listener than the deaf.