As a child I won several spelling contests and got some very high test scores. However, I didn’t compete in any sports until high school and then it was just running which sometimes I lost and sometimes I won but only depending on who else was there. In graduate school I joined a mountain biking team but as this was the late 90s and the Ivy League, there just weren’t very many women. Did you know over 70% of the tenured faculty at four year institutions in the US are men? But more than half of the PhDs in this country are women. Don’t forget that.
Anyhow, once in State College, PA I raced against no one at all and I won. It was surreal riding up the green hills of a ski resort by myself just so I could win because there were no other women. Suffice it to say, I never learned much about true competition in sports.
The longer I stay in France, the more I have a slightly nauseating feeling that what has stressed me out in the US is a society based on extreme competition for scarce resources. I hear sad friends convinced they will never find a good man to date because there are none left. I see my teacher friends stressing out because if someone else gets a good schedule, they will get a terrible one and so much of it is based on weird popularity contests. If I do really well at something, back in the US, I know that talking about it too much will make others feel bad because since we live and breathe capitalism, we begin to believe that there just isn’t enough for all. There will be winners and losers.
So I looked up competition, concurrence, here in France and the first things that pop up aren’t love and attention but rather economics and sports. You can win a bike race and then business can compete for accounts, but it seems to stay in those domains. I am often impressed by what seems like kindness and patience here but now I am beginning to think that it is actually the lack of competition. People can give each other time because there is time.
When I look up the definition of competition in an English dictionary the word supremacy figures prominently — the activity or condition of striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others is the first definition in English but in French – so different – it’s a rivalry amongst people who have the same goal. So if I want to buy an old charm on Ebay that’s competition for the French dictionary but for the English dictionary it’s the condition of establishing superiority.
In yoga classes, in dance classes, in various conversations over this last year I have begun to notice that comparison is simply not done here that much. So if I am being an amazing mother then that’s great, it doesn’t in any way make another parent feel lesser. They may be sad about what isn’t working in their lives but my reality isn’t the cause of that wistfulness. We aren’t literally in competition because our goals are diverse.
I am not an expert in vast generalizations about French culture but it feels like comparing oneself to others is just a little bit in poor taste here. Which is good for mental health. Because comparisons just lead to misery. I am alone in confinement with my child. That is definitely worse than being with a hot man who wants to practice tango all day and cook delightful meals. Or is it? And it’s definitely better than having no one at all to touch and hold. Or is it? It would be lovely to have a big garden to romp in but if I had that then I’d spend all my time pruning instead of practicing handstands. It’s just a bad path, the competition and comparison path. But if I think about only being in competition with those who have the same goals, well, then that’s just me and I might as well help myself.
The comparative and the superlative are what we teach in foreign language classes, thinner, thinnest, richer, richest. But that superlative is a complete myth. You are only the thinnest when you are dead and you can only be the richest if you do the math a certain way. There are no absolute superlatives in our human existence. And so the path of comparison is just a path of misery.
What if my beauty or my happiness or your adoring husband or his cheerful boyfriend or their perfect teaching schedule didn’t affect anyone else’s wellbeing? I don’t know if in the US we can ever wean ourselves of this as a society, as a whole because capitalism needs us to compare and strive so that we will buy. I know so many wonderful people who don’t compete or compare except when they are feeling really down, but the pressure, the habit, the compulsion has been bred into us in so many of our social interactions and ways of perceiving ourselves.
I have been institutionalized most of my life: years and years of grading and being graded. It is exhausting our children. Any time we are evaluated, even by ourselves, our nervous systems get all wound up. It has been such a blessing this year to be in France where, frankly, no one really cares if I have more or less or if I’m faster or slower.
I feel like I have been taught to internalize a barometer, a constant superiority checker and evaluator. It drives me crazy and doesn’t make me happy. This year away and this confinement have made it almost impossible to compete with anyone because I’m on a long race to nowhere at all. I worry that I won’t be able to maintain this live and let live attitude once I return to the US where it just feels like there aren’t enough affordable houses, enough good jobs, enough health care, enough room on the roads, enough, enough, enough for what we have been taught to believe we need.
This year I have had the incredible blessing of being intensely involved with two groups that conscientiously work to keep the voices of comparison quiet through meditation, practices, writing and conversational practices. It’s exciting to think that this is possible, that we, especially women, can work together and enjoy everyone’s success and forget completely about superiority.