Competing With Ourselves, Not Against Other People

Is it man’s nature to be competitive? I would imagine that the great majority would answer In the positive, but is it so? Could it be that what so many of us take for granted as fact, is really nothing more than a general and dangerous acceptance. Could it actually be contrary to our personal interests, the interests of the species and indeed of life itself? Perhaps a closer examination of the issue would cause us to begin to question such a long held and erroneous belief.

Perhaps we could begin with Benjamin Franklin, who provided us with that old idiom “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Let’s reflect on that for a moment in terms of how it may apply to nature in general. “A place for everything,” suggests that for everything that exists, there must be a place, otherwise it could not exist. “Everything in its place,” seems to be obvious, for if it has an assigned place, it could hardly be anywhere else. So the idiom is self-evident, and that being the case, everything that exists must co-exist with everything else, and that being the case, a tolerant harmonious relationship instead of a competitive one is in the ultimate best interest of all.

If and when the various components of the relationship begin to compete with their neighbors in an effort to expand their place or procure for themselves commodities in excess of its need, any hope for harmony is lost. It cannot be denied that in all competitions, for every winner, there must be a loser, nor can it be denied that losers have a tendency to harbor some resentment.

This does not auger well for peaceful coexistence. A cursory examination of current conditions world-wide would suggest that not only has such competition destroyed the harmony of “A place for everything and everything in its place,” but it now threatens the very survival of that everything. If this makes any sense, we must ask how it is that we came to believe otherwise.

Let us first turn to Charles Darwin and the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Actually, this phrase, although generally attributed to Darwin, was coined by Herbert Spencer, whose theory of evolution preceded Darwin’s by seven years. Unfortunately the phrase has been misconstrued in an effort to convince ourselves that it is simply man’s nature to be competitive. I contend, however, that it is actually contrary to man’s nature. I would wager that there are more symbiotic relationships in nature than competitive ones.

Nevertheless, the entrepreneurs or “robber barons” of the 18th century quickly chose to take this phrase out of context in an effort to justify the unsavory practices mandated by competition. No longer were they constrained by the ethics of a religion they professed to practice. So, relieved of any thought of brotherhood, they were now free to exploit their workers to a degree that was criminal. The American worker of this era in the North became the victim of a wage slavery more cruel than the slavery of blacks in the deep South a few decades earlier.

While it was in the financial interest of the Southern slave owner to protect his sizeable investment by providing his slaves with all the necessities of life, the robber barons of the North, on the other hand, felt no such concern for their sweat shop victims. These poor souls existed under the constant threat of a denial of those very necessities. For the sake of the bottom line, they could be and often were simply turned away with nothing and nowhere to go but to the streets. Spencer’s intent in coining the phrase was to convey the idea that those of a particular species who were best fitted to adapt to changing environmental conditions would be more likely to survive, as would their descendants, but that did nothing in way of alleviating guilt.

Seeking a stronger justification for their sins, the Barons lit on another phrase “The law of the Jungle.” This time, it too was taken out of context from Rudyard Kipling’s poem by that name. While Kipling used the title to suggest a social contract which makes clear the balance between the individual’s responsibility to the community and the community’s responsibility to the individual, a line from the poem might have better made clear this intent. “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” But, in the minds of those whose need became greed, once again, this innocent phrase became “anything goes,” “might makes right,” “kill or be killed,” “dog eat dog.”

Thus, the belief that man is by nature competitive became ingrained in the minds of those for whom the bottom line is sacrosanct. While this erroneous belief has made of competition a virtue, it has rendered true virtues like truth, honesty, trust and even the concept of love obsolete and superfluous. The secret of success now lies more in the ability to deceive than in honesty. The erroneous belief that man is born to compete has done nothing more than to justify man’s inhumanity to man.

Thus far we have examined the societal damages resulting from an assumption that competition is an inescapable human trait. Let us now examine the inescapable damage that competition inflicts on the person. Just the sense of being in competition with others immediately sets us apart in opposition to our fellow man, often resulting in withdrawal and the accompanied loneliness. With this sense of competition, we begin to compare ourselves to what others only pretend to be, and all too often we do not seem to measure up, leading to a diminished ego. We become overly sensitive to what we perceive others might think of us, leading at times to paranoia.

As destructive as this can be, it cannot match the damage competition does in the destruction of your potential for true happiness. You must understand that true happiness cannot be found in what those who believe in competition would have you believe comes only from winning. Or to be more precise, when the idea of winning becomes “beating the other guy.” In my own experience, any joy I have found in winning has always been tempered by my empathy with the loser. When the objective becomes simply to beat the other guy, the true happiness which comes from the gratification of achievement and self-fulfillment is diminished or lost altogether for that was not the objective.

Does all of this mean that I think that the word competition and its resulting evils should be stricken from our lives and language? Certainly not. I believe there is a healthy form of competition that can provide us with the utmost in human happiness. To begin with, there are no losers in my competition. In this challenge, you become aware, not only that you have a place in the scheme of things, but exactly where that place may be and with it the security and comfort that goes with a sense of belonging. No longer are you apart from, but rather a part of.

While you have no choice but to tolerate a dog-eat-dog society for the present, you are not obligated to become a part of it. To succumb to its temptations is to enter a no-win race that will surely lead to the destruction of the very person you were meant to be. You must constantly be alert to and alarmed by the tremendous peer and societal pressure you will face to become one of “them.” Your refusal represents a dire threat to their peace of mind, if not their ultimate survival, so it will be severe. You will be perceived as an outsider until you seek out the proper company of kindred souls and disassociate yourself from the rest to the degree possible. Believe me, they are there.

The secret of the good life is to first become aware of the specific unique and intrinsic assets in the way of talents and interests you bring into the world. It is in the development of these assets to their optimum expression, that true happiness will be found. In this competition, you are challenged to become the very best of whomever you are and to be the very best, at whatever that might be. In short, your competition is with yourself. May the best man win.

Harold G. “Hal” O’Leary of Wheeling has been prominent in the arts community for many years. He was the founder of Oglebay Institute’s Towngate Theatre. In 2008 he was inducted into the Wheeling Hall of Fame.