Life is a competition. Or so it is implied from a very young age. You're competing with your classmates for better grades. You're competing with the population at large for high SAT scores and getting into good schools. And as adults, we're competing for a small slice of the little pie that unfettered capitalism and globalization has left us.
In this world, everyone is a possible threat or an enemy. And everything you do is a reason to produce, move forward or just the opposite, move backward and lose. You're on guard constantly. You must produce results. You must constantly prove your self-worth not only to your job but the invisible forces that constantly judge what kind of car you drive or what house you own. (I'm reminded of the business card scene from "American Psycho")
But this, in the world of free markets and neoliberalism, competition is a good thing. Competition breeds innovation. It creates a righteous meritocracy where the cream-of-the-crop rise and get what they deserve. The rest of us get what we deserve also. We're probably not smart enough or don't have the right skills. It is above all else fair, even it is vicious. But that is what is best for us.
You're Probably Average. And That's Ok
Except that it's not. Except that constant competition reeks havoc on our mental health. Except that constant competition leaves us terrified to make any mistakes and makes us unhealthy perfectionists. Except that constant competition rarely gives us a moment of real peace because we must constantly prove ourselves, constantly show how great we are. And a byproduct of this is that we're constantly judging everyone around us in comparison to where we are in life. This includes material goods but also job status. It's exhausting to live this way. So many of us are far more unhappy than you'd think.
This stuff is so implicit in American culture, that it's hardly noticeable. It's just who we are as a country. And these values continue to spread to other parts of the world as the web of neoliberal economics spreads its tangled web to every pocket of the globe.
But I personally have had enough. I've seen what it does not only to myself but to my patients in therapy. For most of younger life (and sometimes now) I was unfailingly hard on myself. I had such high expectations of what I should do and who I should be. I see this same trend in so many of my patients. "Why are people so hard on themselves" I began to wonder. And if everyone is being this hard on themselves, was the problem internal or was the culture relaying a message to us?
I began to realize it was the latter. I began to see how everything is connected, how a hypercompetitive, free market economy, while great for unfettered growth, brings havoc to one's mental health; that mental health can't be diagnosed in a vacuum, that like a lot of things, mental health is connected to power and politics and what we value. It creates anxiety, self-blame, depression and more, but somehow we're convinced that the problem is with the individual.
And I realized more and more how my own depressive and anxious spells came from this line of thinking: a feeling of guilt that I wasn't doing enough to compete, that my work will purify me, that my work will set me free. Productivity might as well have been my new god.
I've been thinking about how to combat this all. I have some ideas. Although I am hardly a believer in God, I think religion provides many answers here in terms of nonjudgment and being grateful for our lives. I will say more and more about this in the coming months. But it's hard when the entire culture against you.
But I'd like to start somewhere simple: there's nothing wrong with being average. That sounds like blasphemy in the hypercompetitive, global economy we live in. Meritocracies demand that we constantly produce or we're left behind. But it's true. There's no need to prove anything to anyone. You don't need to have a lot of money or be the best in your field. You just need to be you.
You just need to exist and be grateful for what you have and try to love your loved ones but also be nice to strangers. It might be nice to do some things that help the less fortunate too but it's not a requirement. In this world, you no longer are in competition with everyone around you because you're ok with whatever you are and what you have.
You might not have the title or materialistic successes of others, but you don't give a shit because you know that it is all just meaningless status symbols given to us by a fucked-up, backward meritocratic society that values winning and materialism above compassion, nonjudgment, and acceptance.
It's not a common view, but I can see the outlines of a large pushback against it all. Too many people have been left outside the status of meritocracies. That's why things like Occupy Wall Street were started. But even beyond the activists, many everyday people sense something wrong, that their happiness is built on quicksand. Sure the well-educated and highly skilled might have "won" in this world. But in this world, you live in constant anxiety. You are always in a precarious position as you must constantly prove yourself. And it's not great to always feel this unsafe.
The pushback has begun as people have started to feel worse and worse and cannot find any answers from their friends, neighborhoods or even doctors. Many patients of mine have started to hunger for answers. In some ways it's real simple: if you can let go, you can find real peace just as you are. If only it were so easy.