It all started with a boy named Brian.
I was in the fourth grade when we were asked to choose a poem or an excerpt, memorize it and recite it in front of the class. Those identified to be the best would present again at the school’s Speech Contest, complete with judges and recognition for first, second and third place. That year, my selection was Shel Silverstein’s “Bear In There,” a poem about a polar bear living in a family’s frigidaire with his seat in the meat and his face in the fish. I was chosen to be one of the representatives at the school’s contest.
So was Brian.
It went on like that in grades five, six, seven and eight. There were always four students per grade but every year, it was always Brian and me. One year Brian won, another year I won, one year we both might have placed.
On two occasions, I employed props: a red mirror and a stuffed pig. The handheld red and gold mirror served as the magic mirror from which I, Belle, looked into to find my father. Seeing him unwell, I implored the Beast to release me so that I could go to him and help. My stuffed pig Henrietta was the chosen stand-in to play the runt of the litter Wilbur, whom I held in my arms and, playing Fern, beseeched my dad to spare Wilbur’s life and prevent him from being slaughtered.
Brian and I didn’t just compete upon the stage. We were academic equals, too. We’d take it in turns to gloat with smug satisfaction whenever we’d learned that one of us had bested the other in History, English or later, Spanish.
This rivalry with Brian was the foundation of my competitiveness. Once unleashed, this streak has known no bounds ever since.
From the perceptively ridiculous…
After years of hiding, I suppressed my fear of being found and created a Facebook account. Of course, I immediately bemoaned the abysmal number of friends I had in comparison with others. Responding to my discouragement, my friend Ali offered matter-of-factly, “it’s not a competition; it’s a relationship builder.”
I smirked. Nice try, Ali. Everything is a competition.
Except yoga. Yoga is not supposed to be a competition. Everyone practices and progresses at their own pace. Stay in tune with your body and its limitations. What you can expertly do today may be a complete struggle tomorrow. Don’t concentrate on your neighbor. Concentrate on your own breath and where you are at today.
I’ve heard countless yogis speak some variation of those words in every single class. While I appreciate the sentiment and deep down, some part of me wants to believe that the teacher’s words are true, I cannot accept it. I want to be the best and it pains me when my body and my flexibility – or lack thereof – limit me. For a long while, I practiced frequently after work with a friend. I had a few setbacks that prevented me from a regular practice; all the while she thrived and eventually outpaced me in this certain type of acrobatic yoga. I couldn’t ignore the tug of competition pulling me to be better. I stopped practicing not only to heal my broken back, but to search for a way to silence that need to observe everyone else and just be OK with me.
…To both literal and figurative world domination.
I was ready to take over the world. In the company of three friends, I sat cross-legged on the floor of a flat in London, surveying the armies on the board game before me. I’d never played Risk before. In high school it was a group of boys who loved to play; I’d always stayed away. This was my first time playing and I was pleased to realize that I was winning! The thrill of impending victory prompted me to be ruthless in destroying any remaining armies that stood in my way. After I won, Tom, who sat across me, eyed me warily. Risk was his game and I, a newbie, bested him. Our eyes met and an unspoken dialogue passed between us in that moment, a knowing subtext of what made each other tick. I know what your game is. I recognize the competitor in you. You’re my competition. I need to watch out for you.
I turn to the map of the world hanging in my kitchen. I’m proud of that map because it reminds me of the places I’ve been and all of the places I still have to visit. The map is marked with black pins for my husband John and pink pins for me. I begrudgingly agreed to add white pins that indicate places we’ve both visited, albeit together or separately. I’m proud of my “crimson tide” as it’s been called, a stronghold in Europe. Since he’s British, I’ll tease John about it. How is it that I, the American, have beat him at his own continent?
I’m fiercely protective of my “crimson tide” of pink pins.
All in a day’s healthy competition, I think.