Competitiveness and the petty superiority of new age spirituality

I learned early to be very competitive. Some people begin life with tremendous luxury and comfort, so they might not be as attentive as I was to issues of scarcity and accumulating wealth. Or maybe they are just pretending not to be attentive to wealth in order to deceive others (like to avoid criticism) or even to “earn glory in the heavenly hereafter.”

I was raised “middle class” with one other child in the home. I do not recall ever being aware of any serious financial challenges in our household.

But there was a sense of competitiveness. We children were “strongly encouraged” to excel in school.

Before I even entered school as a student, I often went with my mother to her job. She was a teacher in a Catholic school.Because families had to pay for their students to attend that school (in contrast to regular public schools that were free), there was more of an expectation on students to attain academic excellence there. Not only was there the natural competitiveness that can arise when a group of children are herded together, but there was the additional pressure from the parents. These kids from the most competitive families were placed together there to compete for the approval of the teacher (for good grades).

One element of the social competition in my midst was a competition to see who could seem the most “perfect.” Perfect included qualities like cooperative, charitable, and pleasant (pleasing to others).

In other words, we were in a competition to pretend to be the least competitive. However, there was also a practical value to our competition over who was the most cooperative.

We were forming alliances to collaborate as a team or network. Instead of only competing against each other, we would form relationships and groups and “clicks” and subcultures.

Then, our group would compete against other groups. This collaborative competition worked much better than operating as individuals with no alliances.

I did make a few alliances, some lasting. However, some of my most notable skills were not in areas in which alliances were important.

There were two main areas in which alliances (collaborative competition) was primary:  everyday social hierarchies and team sports. Outside of those two realms is where I eventually focused most.

I remember being very competitive in casual childhood games that I would play with my sister or other children. I did not like to lose.

However, being so focused on winning was sometimes a drawback. For one thing, my anxiety could lead to inattentiveness, mistakes, failure, frustration, and lasting upset. Further, games typically require at least two players and, if I was not much fun as a player in a game, people might be unlikely to repeatedly play with me.

A “sore loser” or whiner was not an attractive participant in an alliance. If I could not attract glory by winning, then I would at least try to attract encouragement by complaining about any possible justification for the poor results (besides my own skill level of course).

To get better quickly, I had to play with people who were equal or better than me. However, I wanted to win. I was not very interested in getting better in the long run.

There was a notable exception though. I was excellent at math. In fact, I was so good for my age that by 6th grade I really enjoyed competing with my closest peers (because I was often the fastest to complete a challenge).

When I was in the 7th grade, the county school district held a competition for the 8th graders who were the best at math (called “Math Counts”).  I qualified as a 7th grader (I think as one of the top 4 math students in my school, beating all but 3 of the 8th graders in the school). I went to the same competition a second year and was ranked 3rd place in the county at math.

While in 8th grade, I was sent to a nearby high school (Leon High) to take a math class (plus a biology class) that was more advanced than anything at my school (Griffin Middle School). By 12th grade, I had finished the most advanced math classes in my high school and so I was able to attend Calculus 3 classes a few miles down the street at Florida State University.

In that classroom filled mostly with FSU engineering students (perhaps?), I realized that it would not be easy for me to continue in college to the best math student in every class. The material was getting quite complicated and the competition was getting quite “stiff.” I could no longer coast my way to glory.

Around that same time, I took my final college entrance exams with an expectation of very high scores (especially in Math). I performed as I expected. In fact, after college, one of my first jobs was assisting other people to raise their scores on college entrance exams (especially in math).
So, there was an emerging challenge. How exactly would I continue to maintain my pretense of self-confidence? In the absence of frequent encouragement and validation, how would I promote my self-image of being more deserving of glory (and affection) than the rest of humanity?

Fortunately I found a potential solution. I could explore spirituality! That is always a potentially attractive subject for shy introverts who are attracted to justifications for pretending that social skills are unimportant to them.

As a teenager, I had read a few passages of the Bible and then promptly concluded that I was personally more spiritually advanced than most everyone I knew, including my parents and the people I knew from church. I criticized them (to myself) for the inconsistency between their behaviors and my own ideals. They seemed fixated on conforming to traditions rather than exploring the depths of spirituality (which did interest me).

Plus, they criticized other people and complained about other people and fixated on other people. Since I was criticizing their patterns of behavior (silently) rather than directly attacking them, that established my superiority according to the model that I celebrated as “the only right one.” (Also,
some of them were very fanatical about how other models were not as good as their favorite one, which proves that their inferior fanaticisms were very slightly different than my clearly superior fanaticism).

So, I made my way from group to group, congregation to congregation, tradition to tradition. None of them were entirely satisfying.

As time went on, fortunately I learned that I might have been much more naive than I had previously realized. Maybe it would promote my welfare to focus less on loudly proclaiming my absolute superiority over others (and my utter disappointment in them) and focus more on tact and diplomacy and effectiveness.

Maybe it was not important to challenge every trivial issue. Maybe I did not have to correct every possible point of obscurity. I could notice a possible tangent and yet somehow simply choose not to explore it.

I could notice petty arguments without responding to them. I could even withdraw from petty arguments right in the middle of them.

Why was I less successful than other people in certain ways? Was it because I, as a superior being, was focused on things of (alleged) eternal importance rather than things of practical relevance?

Or, was it some detail of my personal history? Was it my skin color? Was it my hairstyle?

Yes, other people with a similar skin color and a similar hairstyle have achieved a wide range of success, but logic is over-rated, right?

Just because people with more social skills consistently tend to be happier, that does not mean that I should focus on developing better social skills, does it? Isn’t that”lowering myself in to the mundane world?”
Are they happier because of social skills or do they have better social skills because they are happy? Besides questions of correlation and causality, what about the specific survey methods used? Can’t I find a sliver of a reason to completely dismiss anything that I consider a threat to my core denials about how life should not ever be?
Also, just because people with above average material wealth tend to be happier, that does not mean that I should focus on promoting my own prosperity, does it? What about that one political candidate that is promising to make everyone above average? Should I pursue the American Dream even if that means ignoring the latest American Pipe Dream?Ah, but what if in my pursuit of “The American Dream,” I find that no less than four of the presumptions drilled in to me in my youth might be totally false. Should I blow a whistle, throw a yellow flag, then complain that propaganda and indoctrination should not be so deceptively effective?

I demand a re-count. Until the Supreme Court gives me that answer that fits my preference, I could pretend that pouring money in to a lawsuit is always the very best way to promote my interests (without resorting to outright competitiveness of course).


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