Earlier this week, a neighbour knocked on our door and asked me to submit something from our garden to the village horticultural competition being held next Saturday.
I gagged. Almost literally. The thought of entering a competition using the fruit and vegetables we are growing repelled me with an intensity that surprised me. The thought of actually winning the competition is even more appalling.
I offered to give him something if he would submit it in his name and keep me out of it, but he said he couldn’t do that. I offered to donate something to the horticulture committee outside the competition if the produce was going ultimately to a charity or soup kitchen. He was unimpressed.
So I’ve been analyzing my response.
First of all, I’m not against all competition. But I do know that generally women do better in cooperative situations while men will often thrive in competition. This has always been true for me. I freeze in the face of competition, but love working together.
In our capitalist societies, there is a place for competition: There is a place to try to make a better, more efficient, or cheaper product. There is a place for competition to solve all kinds of problems, whether it be to find a cure for cancer, less-polluting energy sources, or more and better ways to feed the hungry.
Just as importantly, we can benefit from knowing how our gifts compare with those of our peers if we want to make a contribution, and in that sense, competition can be a source of valuable self-insight. When I was teaching courses in educational psychology, I often required my students to generate their own grades, assessing how well they thought they did in the course relative to their own gifts. In other words, to assess whether they thought that they had done their A-level best, or not, and why. This was the grade in which they evaluated themselves. I also gave them a grade, which reflected an individual’s achievement as I saw it relative to everybody else in the class.
I think both of these assessments are valuable for different reasons and in different ways. The first is rooted in oneself. It teaches us to make our own judgements, to take responsibility for our own actions, and makes us less dependent on others’ approval. The second gives us some idea of how our particular gifts compare with others. The thing that is often not realized is that we need to know which of our gifts may be outstanding every bit as much as we need to know which of our talents may be pretty mediocre. It’s not a question of hubris on the one hand, or lack of self-confidence on the other. We all have gifts and we all are incomplete. We need to know that.
Okay, what does this have to do with our village fruit and vegetable competition?
Well, I don’t grow vegetables to impress other people. I grow them to eat. And sometimes to share. But not to do a one-upmanship. Not to gain status. Not to be better than somebody else. The whole idea seems so ghastly, to rob the entire experience of growing things of it intense intrinsic reward.
Anyway, I don’t think the neighbour understood.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to explain it or not. If I try, I will make sure his wife is there too. I think she might understand. She’s a woman, after all.