EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay also appears in this week’s issue of TimeOut Chicago, as part of our weekly web-to-print partnership.
President Obama is a ferocious competitor who hates to lose even in trivial contests, according to a recent New York Times article headlined “Competitor in Chief.” Putting aside for a moment the question of how such a competitive fellow could snooze through his first debate with the man who wants to take his job, reading about Obama’s compulsion got me thinking about my childhood and the way I’m raising my children.
I grew up the eldest of three boys. We boxed, brawled, wrestled, and arm-wrestled. We staged Olympiads. We played tackle football, basketball, checkers, Atari, Wiffle Ball, and Stratego. We competed in running races, bike races, sled races, skateboard races, and Matchbox races. We competed even standing over the toilet, engaging in sword fights with our streams of urine, although I’m still not sure how winners and losers were determined.
As I look back, it seems roughly 90% of our interactions came in the form of competition. And it spilled over into other parts of my life as I grew up. I had to have more bylines than the other reporters at my high school newspaper.
Because I was short and slow and not terribly talented, I had to work harder than anyone else to make the school’s tennis team. The tennis coach had painted a sign over the entrance to our macadam courts. It read: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat these two impostors just the same.”
I did not know that the same quote hung above the doors on the way to the Centre Court at Wimbledon, nor did I know what the words meant. How could Triumph and Disaster be impostors? And why treat them the same?
I ignored the sign.
I live in a house now with three females—my wife and two daughters. My son and I competed. We lifted weights. We played one-on-one hoops, sometimes with punishing physicality, obviously working our frustrations out with each other. But he’s gone to college and I’m alone in the house with the girls. They don’t knock over game boards when it becomes clear they’re losing. They don’t cheat. They don’t punch.
My nine-year-old daughter is a Yankee fan, at least this week. She woke up one recent morning and put on her Yankee cap and a new Yankee shirt and I told her the Yankees lost last night and Derek Jeter broke his ankle.
“Oh,” she said. “Can I have a banana?”
I could only laugh.
My competitive streak, though softer around the edges, remains, a surviving artifact of my childhood, like the scar on my knee from when I crashed my bike while trying to catch up to my brother, intent on punching his face in for annoying my friends when we were playing football.
But there’s no one in the house now to feed my fire. I make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for my daughter and I tell myself I make them better than my wife does. This thought, pathetic as it is, actually goes through my head. It’s poisonous, and I’m not proud of it.
My wife can’t engage in this PBJ battle because she is unaware of it, nor would she understand. She is brilliant and successful and yet she has achieved all she has without the hardwiring I have for defeating and diminishing those around me.
If I’d bothered to read the entire Rudyard Kipling poem, the meaning would have become clear decades ago, even to my immature, testosterone-addled high school self. Triumph and Disaster are indeed impostors. To rebound from Disaster may be a Triumph for the soul. To Triumph by lying or cheating may be a true Disaster. We should treat these two the same—approach them honorably and wisely—because either one might lead to success. Either one might teach us a lesson.
The last stanza of “If” goes like this:
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
I see no irony in the fact that my wife and daughters figured this out before I did.
After all, it’s not a competition.