Arcadia · Love and Life

On Competition

I am, by nature and nurture, a very competitive person.

I love tests and grades. I love being assessed and knowing where I stack up in the scheme of things. As an adult (without a boss), it feels strange that I’m not being reviewed in any way. Part of me wants to ask Jonathan, “So, how would you rate my performance this week? How do I compare to other wives, mothers? What grade do I receive?”

Embarrassingly, I can still site my class rank in college, because it mattered (matters?) to me. I keep a small list of my  acheivements at ready in my brain, because, on some level, I feel like they are proof of my worth. Then too, I remember my failures, my shortcomings, the times I have felt “less than.”

It is, after all, the American way.

Here, when we meet a new person, “And what do you do?” is the default question. And we don’t mean “on the weekends,” of course, we mean, “in this competitive world of making a living, of proving our mettle by accumulating wealth.”

And if you’re like me, subconsciously or not, you begin to categorize the responses: “part time” is unequal to “full time,” “doctor” trumps “fill-in-the-blank,” and so on.

How disgusting is that?

But it is a mindset that is everywhere in our society, and as often as I try to check these tendencies in myself, as wrong as I feel it is to judge myself and others in this way, there are whole groups of people who see no problem in revering a gospel of wealth, a survival of the fittest mentality that extends to their understanding of other humans and their place in community with them.

I was talking with a dear friend recently who has just asked to have her hours reduced at her work. Her job is demanding, her commute is long, and she wants to have more free time. This is similar to my recent decision to stay home as a mom. We both shared shocked responses from friends and co-workers, in which the idea that we would go from working more to working less was baffling. “Can you afford to do that?” someone asked her.

Many people can’t. Many people are stuck in endemic poverty, and unless our society changes, they will be working very hard to stay afloat for the rest of their lives.

But others can, or could if they made different financial decisions, and choose not too. They take on more and more debt, they take on larger and larger lifestyles and financial overhead, they purchase more and more stuff, so that they too, of their own volition, will need to work until they die, to pay the vast mortgage, car payment, credit card bill. They are out to prove that they are better than their fellow man, that they earn more, can provide more, that they are worth more.

They are living to work, instead of working to live.

At some point, and hmm, looking at the timeline of my life it feels like this may have occurred while I was living in not-so-competition-driven France, Jonathan and I made a decision not to live for the accumulation of wealth and things. When we moved back home to Nashville, we bought the cheapest house we could find that was safe to live in. We bought a used car with savings and the help of a $1,000 loan from my parents that we paid off in a few months. I couldn’t tell you the last thing I bought for myself in terms of clothing. And we’ve never had two full incomes our entire married lives.

But we have spent a lot of mornings sleeping in together. We have spent hours playing with our son together. That’s time I wouldn’t trade for any amount of money, ever.

Love is free. It requires nothing of us but our effort, and yet I know of nothing else that can add so much to this life.

I am still an ambitious person. I still want to work hard at life. I want to learn to write things that matter. I want Jonathan and I to be able to record music. I want to travel more (that does require money). But at this point, my aim is to work the system, to figure a way out of the “accumulation competition” as quickly as possible so that Jonathan and I have time to live and to contribute in ways that are meaningful and valuable to society, that demonstrate our love of our family and this extended family we call humanity and its home, our Earth, though in doing so we may receive nothing back financially.

Beacause for us and our list of what matters, it is:

  1. Love
  2. Everything else*

*Not including gratuitous wealth, staking out our piece of the pie, getting our fair share, or any other number of ridiculous aphorisms that justify placing money and competition above love and relationship.

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