So, I was just reading up on swimming, because I am the kind of nerd who cannot go to an open swim at a Park District pool without doing research first. And in the course of that research, I found this article, which attempts to define a “fitness swimmer” as opposed to a competitive one. As it turns out, the article really doesn’t draw a very clear distinction, but that’s beside the point. Here’s what caught my eye:
I started thinking about this, as I have never really considered myself a Fitness Swimmer, as I am a Competitive Swimmer who signed up for the Fitness Committee for a couple of reasons, one being that of trying to understand how someone gets up every morning at 4:15 a.m. (we work out early) and comes to swim with no “real” goals in mind, or any that I could see.
I know, it’s a dizzying sentence, but let’s just focus on the part I emphasized.
It has been said around these parts many a time, but it always bears repeating: if you exercise just because it’s fun and keeps your body happy, you can meet your goal on day one and every damn day thereafter. If you exercise because you want to lose weight or win a race or do it better than the gymbunny next to you, it’s probably going to take a looong time to meet your goal, and there’s a strong likelihood of getting discouraged along the way.
That concept came quite easily to me, and it never even occurred to me that it might be difficult for someone else to grok. What’s not to understand? What I didn’t think about is the fact that I’m not naturally a competitive person, and the older I get, the more any sort of competition makes my skin crawl. I would much rather meander along at my own pace, enjoying myself and indulging my curiosity, than win the race. I am neither the tortoise nor the hare; I move slowly and stop to take naps. Perhaps I’m more of a Ferdinand.
I know that some people genuinely thrive on competition, and more power to them — but the problem is, in a capitalist society*, people who thrive on competition are held up as gods, and those of us with more Ferdinandy dispositions are dismissed as lazy, useless, undisciplined, etc. It’s awfully hard to advance in any career if you don’t want to compete, and it’s awfully hard to make enough money to live on if you don’t advance, so coming in last because you felt like walking instead of running isn’t much of an option. And if you do stop to walk because the running is killing you, or refuse to fight because you’d much rather sit and smell flowers, the whole culture makes sure you know what a freak you are.
Every time I have decided to remove myself from a competition, the overall relief has been enormous — but the feeling that I was “copping out,” or “taking the easy road,” or just not being fucking normal sapped the joy right out of it. Deciding not to continue on an editorial career path because I knew it would eventually make me stop writing altogether was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself — but to this day, I cannot stand having the “What do you do?” conversation with new people, because when I say I’m a writer, they want to know about my books and my magazine and newspaper articles. They want to know where they would have seen me. And when I tell them there are no books — only a few blogs, a few publications in literary magazines they’ve never heard of, and an unfinished novel — then they want to know what I do, really. And 9 times out of 10, I eventually end up admitting that my grandpa left me some money, and I zanily decided to throw caution to the wind and use it to focus on my writing instead of socking it away and continuing to kiss senior editors’ asses.
And then the world is set right again, because now this person understands what I really am: a spoiled dilettante. Certainly not a writer who spent two years working to earn a master’s degree, and who now churns out at least a couple thousand words a day, most of which are read by at least a couple thousand people a day. I cannot be a real writer because they cannot purchase my work. I cannot be a real writer because I do not live in New York and strive to get invited to the hippest cocktail parties. I cannot be a real writer because I do not currently have a “real” job that would make writing nearly impossible. Ergo, I am not a real anything. Except, of course, a real spoiled dilettante.
That bugs me. But not nearly as much as continuing to work in a veal pen for little money and less recognition — all the while knowing I could give it up for a few years and do what I loved — would have bugged me. As in, one of those things irritates me, and the other chipped away at my soul. Big difference. It’s not easy to be a non-competitive person in this society, but it’s a hell of a lot harder to be a non-competitive person who’s forced to compete.
And making matters worse, even when non-competitive people leave their jobs at the end of the day, they’re supposed to carry over that competitive spirit and Puritan work ethic into their personal lives. They’re supposed to care deeply about who in the neighborhood has the cleanest house, the nicest lawn, the most charming and well-rounded children, the best-trained dogs, the priciest cars. And they’re definitely supposed to treat diet and exercise as an ongoing challenge, a competition with the whole rest of the world to see who can exert the most control over his or her mortal coil.
So intense is the cultural pressure to compete in every aspect of our lives, to work toward long-term goals set by other people, to mark success only in terms of specific external accomplishments rather than an overall sense of well-being, there are people who can’t even comprehend why someone would exercise just for fun and general fitness. Not for any “real” goal.
That makes me incredibly sad.
And I might write more about how sad it makes me, but I’m off to a water aerobics class, which I expect to be an absolute blast.
*I am not really anti-capitalist, though I think there ought to be a lot more limits on corporate greed. I’m just saying, competition is the lifeblood of capitalism.