The first time my mother and I competed against each other I was 5 years old. She was 37. We swam one lap of our neighbor's pool. She won.
"Ha! Beat you!" she proclaimed.
Mom had been waiting for this day for a long time. Like many women of her generation, Sara Burton Nelson was born with athletic inclinations and a competitive spirit but little opportunity to express either. She learned to swim before kindergarten and staged competitions with friends but was expected to outgrow such childish games. She acquiesced, limiting herself to lap swimming. Even there she would surreptitiously race against the person in the neighboring lane. Her unabashed enthusiasm for victory ("Ha! Beat you!") often gave her away.
That's why I got to be born. Having failed to find suitable rivals, Mom decided to create some. Her first child, my older sister, Carol, had little interest in sports. Mom's second child, Peter, loved soccer, baseball, crew, and tennis but, because of ear problems, wasn't allowed to swim.
Finally, with me, Mom could stop having kids because I loved all sports, including swimming, and was just as eager to race as she was. I remember that first race, when I was 5, with great fondness. We dived into the cold water, and I paddled as fast as I could to the other end of the pool. When I finished, I looked over at Mom and saw her slapping the end of the pool again, for emphasis. "Ha! Beat you!"
|I learned to see competition not as a selfish desire to defeat others but as a vehicle for loving the people who join me in this impossible quest for perfection.
I was ecstatic too. After all, my mother--dark, curly hair flattened against her head like a cap, eyes red from chlorine--was grinning at me. I had just swum my fastest lap ever. My mom and I were playing together. No one had told me that losing was a bad thing.
Still, I was no dummy. Winning seemed even more fun. So while Mom was busy working, I joined a local swim team. Each summer, Mom and I raced and she won. Undeterred, I practiced my breathing, my racing dives, my flip turns. Finally, the year I turned 10, I beat my mom. She disputes this now. "I don't know about that," she says, frowning. "I think you were 11."
By introducing me to sports and by never letting me win, my mother--who at 55 took up tennis and at 60 tried downhill skiing--taught me about love.
To compete is to connect. To compete is to compare your skills or knowledge or children or clothes with those of someone else. Psychologists call it social comparison theory: Through comparisons with others, people seek to understand themselves and to measure their own success. In this process you get to know the other person: his or her strengths, weaknesses, fears, hopes, dreams. You get to know yourself and gain compassion for yourself.
My mother competed with her colleagues and she competed with my father and she competed with her kids, and in her 70s she's only getting stronger, more focused, more successful. Because of Mom's example, I too learned to thrive on competition. It was through this woman--a high achiever, a joyous winner, a hell-bent competitor--that I learned to see competition not as a selfish desire to defeat others but as a vehicle for loving the people who join me in this impossible quest for perfection.
"If you compare yourself with others," a line in "Desiderata" warns, "you may become vain and bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself." True, this can happen. Yet I have found that by comparing myself with others, I become both self-confident and humble.
When you compete--when you admit what you want and, in the presence of someone else, strive to obtain it--you expose yourself. Thus competition, like other forms of intimacy, can be terrifying as well as gratifying. Try saying this: "I want to succeed." Try saying to a friend: "I want to be as good as you at surfing [or computer programming or mothering]." You might feel terribly vulnerable. What if you fail? What if your friend feels threatened by your ambition? Here's why it can be worth taking that risk: When you're honest about what you want, you open up the possibility of intimacy. You allow others to see who you are, and you allow the light of day to shine on your competitiveness. Then it doesn't seem shameful and secretive. There's nothing wrong with wanting to win.
A few years ago I watched an impromptu race between Mom and my sister's eldest daughter, Teagan. The two swimmers, one 70 and one 10, churned furiously back and forth for two laps of hotel pool. Teagan won.
"I lost to a 10-year-old!" moaned Mom.
"It's not the first time," I teased mercilessly.
"You were 11!" she insisted.
"And you were in your 40s," I said, more gently now. "I don't know if you've noticed, Mom, but you're not in your 40s anymore."
Mom was quiet for a long time. Finally she said, "Don't tell anyone."
Mom and I still race against each other too. I'm faster than I was at 5. Because she has been in training--at 70 she started competing in meets--she's faster than she was at 37. Nevertheless I give her a head start. Fair is fair, and competitions are most exciting when close. We dive in, frantically swimming as fast as we can. If I win, she insists we race again. If she wins, she smacks her hand against the wall, jerks her head up, and yells, "Ha! Beat you!" I complain that she must have cheated. She splashes me. I dunk her. We laugh a lot. I think: Yes, this is love.