Tuesday, October 28, 2014


     America is a competitive society—just look at some of TV's top rated shows: American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, The Superbowl, The Wheel of Fortune, and The Olympics. The simple win/lose drama in made-for-TV competitions is a consistent safe bet for drawing viewers.
     Nothing's wrong with healthy competition but it doesn't take much or long for who-cares? fun to turn into serious I-want-it-bad winner-takes-all contests that aren't so fun anymore. (I used to play doubles in Honolulu Tennis League with a C-2 rating and some players took it far too serious).
     The thing about competition is someone has to win and someone has to lose and sometimes the winners are the biggest losers of all if it means losing their self-respects, friends, perspectives, or humanities (see my prior Competitive Sports essay for further discussions regarding), for poor winners abound.
     Comparing one's self or children to others, then, can have similar pitfalls (Who's better? Who's best?) especially when it comes to selecting what to compare to whom. All too often, I hear parents express feelings of “inadequacy” or “stress” when comparing their kids or lives to those of others. Is it any wonder when they choose to compare that in which they or theirs' aren't especially strong? Shouldn't they instead focus on those that have things far worse off, say the suffering billions that aren't even in on any competition due to want of daily sustenance? Wouldn't such scrutiny result in greater appreciation for what they have and perhaps even generate some sympathy or compassion, or motivate generosity? 
     So whenever I hear hints or even suggestions of comparisons with others—“They must be doing well...,” “Is he in honors English?” “Believe me, they can afford it,” “Wasn't she (elementary school) valedictorian?”—I cut it off. “No need to compare,” I say, or “Don't worry about her, she's not our child.” After all, children, adults, and families each possess their own strengths, weaknesses, and struggles and not one has everything all together. “Would you prefer her as your daughter? Or to trade their lives with ours?” are questions worth asking that I've never heard a “Yes” to, thank God. 
     Like our parents, we've focused on our kids' academics and who they are in raising them as none of them will make it as professional athletes, stars, or artists as far as we can tell. But if they're decent, law-abiding citizens that are capable learners and workers with positive attitudes, independent and strong, we feel they'll be well-equipped—with God's help—to thrive as adults.
     Perhaps as a society we should scrutinize this comparative/competitive-based decision-making compulsion that seems ever more prevalent in schools, businesses, financial markets, and even homes. If there's a single pizza slice left should jan ken po (a paper, scissors, rock hand game) decide who gets it? If there's enough money for only one kid to go to college should the most “deserving” one with the highest GPA automatically get it? Should limited housing always go to the highest bidder, need or merit be damned? And where does cooperation and helpfulness, essential for success in tomorrow's and today's world, fit in? All too often such altruism seems squeezed in as token gesture or for show rather than performed out of duty or for pleasure. 
     And let's not forget the effects of the shrinking world. I see it; my friend Norm in Seattle sees it. He complains of the burgeoning Hispanic population sweeping in and changing the close-knit complexion of his community and of Middle East and other ethnic immigrants refusing to conform to local standards of common courtesy and consideration. (Some Arab mothers of his fellow Karate students refuse to remove their footwear upon entering their dojo, disregarding the sign and customs that he knows they have read, observed in others, and understood. His Arab lady friend of a younger generation that always wears a headdress and conservative attire in public said they're just acting like jerks: there's no custom or religious tenet forbidding removal of footwear in such circumstances.) 
     Deanne and I, too, have noticed huge influxes of immigrants over the last decade from India, Europe, Asia (our new next door neighbors are from Japan), and the South Pacific, plus transplants galore from the U.S. Mainland, mostly Caucasian, but lots of African Americans too. Most blend in well. Hawaii is by far the most diverse state in the U.S., laid back and cosmopolitan, so that's the type of immigrant it attracts. It sure has changed a lot since I was a kid, though, when Japanese and Caucasians were predominant, followed by Chinese, Filipinos, and Hawaiians (not necessary in that order.)
     The good news, I told Norm, is that succeeding generations very quickly assimilate (though Penelope surprised me the other day when I asked her to describe her school hang-out. She said across from the concrete slab where she and her friends sit during recesses are benches where a group of students congregate speaking Chinese. I asked are they recent immigrants? She said I don't think so, they also speak English. Are they some of the smartest kids in class? Do they speak English with an accent? I asked. They're smart and no, she said. I found it surprising they'd choose to speak Chinese so publicly but guessed maybe they grew up together, with immigrant parents that were close friends).
     With this ever changing populace then (my new boss grew up in East Asia and speaks with a thick accent) when no one knows who will be working with or living near whom, comparing self or family to others becomes even more fruitless (as everyone has their priorities), resulting in unjustified pride or envy, or feelings of undistinguished mediocrity.  (Penelope's middle school's quarterly newsletter lists honor role students—a practice I find invasive and inappropriately competitive, perhaps shaming students and their parents that achieve lower GPAs or are off the lists altogether. It may also demoralized those that due to genetic learning difficulties (Braden), autism (a family friend), dyslexia, etc., struggle hard just to keep up.) It would be much better if everyone just did his or her best without worrying about others or standings, or better yet, be considerate and helpful. I'm all for courses that teach and instill cooperation and helpfulness and grade students for such. (Group projects help, but sometimes result in even more competition and selfishness, as anyone who has worked on such teams surely has witnessed.)
     I recall a most unseemly competition involving my high school's senior class race for top academic award. Our salutatorian cried during her commencement address for shame of “losing” the competition and being a poor loser (she didn't put it that way but everyone knew). It was sad that such a bright, attractive, and popular girl had felt so driven by perfection that she couldn't much enjoy her special moment and chose instead to focus inwardly on her “failures” and indirectly on her “enemy”—the one she lost to, a fine, decent fellow, meek and humble, who once confided in me that he never went to a movie with friends (I felt guilty for months afterward for not inviting him along, his confession obviously being a hint. I just knew he wouldn't fit in with us uncouth Philistines, though—a lame excuse, I know, thus the guilt. We talked at our twentieth year class reunion. He's doing fine as an actuary at one of the state's largest insurers, which is fitting as he's brilliant in math—his dad was a math teacher—and scored a perfect 800 on his SAT.)
     Continuing this ever escalating competing and comparing as a society is bound to lead to ever more disgruntled losers and all-too-few humble, appreciative, and generous "winners."  Or, we could choose not to participate but to instead care for and nurture one another—always a win-win, especially to the giver—learning what it means to live together peaceably and cooperatively. It's great when it happens following a natural disaster, but must it happen only then? 

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