I was speaking to a colleague recently, who announced that he couldn’t wait for his children to be out of primary school and into the British equivalent of high school.
When he told me why, the story was all too familiar. He is the father of an 11-year-old daughter, clearly a great kid – conscientious, academic, sporty and wearing it all well.
A great team-player, a popular all-rounder and, many parents agreed, a shoe-in to be the next year’s head of house (this is Britain, where schools often group children into ‘houses’).
During Awards Day, when they announced the positions for the following year, his daughter wasn’t chosen for head of house. That prize went to the daughter of one of the school administrators, who hadn’t anywhere near the same gifts, so much so that the announcement caused a stunned reaction in the audience.
Life is often unfair, and learning that lights don’t always turn green for you may ultimately create a vital sense of resilience in our friend’s daughter.
But his daughter isn’t the point of the story.
The reason for the slight, said our friend, was that he and his wife had recently turned down some voluntary position at the school because they both have full-time jobs, asking that it instead go to one of the stay-at-home parents. The stay-at-home parents, he said, were making a point.
In a sense, the children were extraneous to Awards Day. The people going after the prizes were the parents.
This brought to mind one of many similar situations that occurred when our children were school age.
I remember standing in a drafty auditorium, watching one of my daughters in the midst of a dress rehearsal for her school’s annual production. A talented actress, she’d been chosen for the lead part during the auditions, but a few weeks before the dress rehearsal, had been shunted to a more minor role.
I had never been able to discover the reason for the change – and my daughter had refused to talk about it – until one of her friends let slip that when a new director had taken over, another 13-year-old girl had lied about her role in the play in order to take over the part given to my daughter.
This girl, I should tell you, was one of my daughter’s best friends.
When I tried to raise this tactfully with her mother, who was there in the audience week after week, shouting out stage directions to her daughter from her seat, she cut me off and shrugged.
“Well, that’s life,” she replied airily, “isn’t it?”
I was taken aback, but I had to admit she had a point. Certainly, that’s the life we grown-ups have designed for ourselves and our children. Competition makes up the very warp and woof of the societies of most modern developed countries. It is the engine of our economy, and it is assumed to be the basis of most of our relationships — in business, in our neighborhoods, even with our closest friends.
Being first, no matter how, has permeated our lexicon as a given: All’s fair in love and war. Survival of the fittest. Winner take all. He who dies with the most toys wins. It is hardly surprising that highly competitive tactics have crept into the social relations of our children, leading to transgressions, large and small.
Just consider the social exchanges in most neighborhoods and how much what psychologists call “relativity awareness” plays a part. How many children do you have? What kind of car do you drive? How many vacations are you off on this year? Which college has your kid gotten in to? What’s his or her grade point average?
Where, in other words, do you fit on the social ladder?
Our current paradigm, as provided us by traditional science, maintains a view of the universe as a place of scarcity populated by separate things that must turn against each other in order to survive. We’ve all simply assumed that’s life.
Many psychologists argue that competitiveness is hardwired within us, a natural biological urge as inherent as our basic urge to survive. After we stop fighting over food, water, shelter, and mates, the theory goes, we begin competing over more ephemeral prizes: power, status and, most recently, fame.
A connected whole
In my research, I’ve discovered other societies who live very differently from us, with a world view more in keeping with the findings of the new science. These cultures conceive of the universe as an indivisible whole, and this central belief has bred an extraordinarily different way of seeing and interacting with the world.
They’ve understood the essential nature of humanity as a coming together — a communion — and as a consequence, they live happier lives, with lower divorce statistics, fewer troubled children, less crime and violence, and a stronger community.
Every time I hear stories like my friend’s, I consider that at some point, we’ve torn up the social contract and forgotten how to come together.
Somewhere along the line, we’ve forgotten how to be.
If this sounds like a first-world problem, it’s important to understand that stealing drama roles doesn’t end there.
The individualistic, winner-take-all zeitgeist of modern times is to blame for many of the crises we presently face in our society, particularly the excesses of the financial sector, with its insistence on a bigger and better profit every year, at any cost.
Before being jailed for his part in energy company Enron’s vast array of fraudulent activities, CEO Jeffrey Skilling bragged that his favorite book was neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, and periodically fired the entirety of those of his workforce achieving the bottom 10 per cent results as a means of improving the overall ‘fitness’ of the herd.
This mindset is responsible for the raft of deceit that now goes on in every sector of society, from the 50 per cent of college students now known to cheat on exams to corporate cheating, even in sectors designed for the public interest.
The competitive impulse that is now a major part of our self-definition and that forms the undercurrent of all our lives is the same mindset that has created every one of the large global crises now threatening to destroy us.
If we can teach children that stealing drama roles aren’t the rules of the game, in my view, we will begin to heal our world.