Winner Takes All
What’s the harm in wanting to win?
It is not enough to succeed; one’s friends must fail. I didn’t say that. Gore Vidal did. So did British literary great Somerset Maugham—or words to that effect. As did 17th century nobleman François de La Rochefoucauld. And Genghis Khan. Still, the first time I read the pithy quip expressing the schadenfreude (literal translation from German: harm-joy) in human nature, I felt as if I were suddenly standing naked at a party. I was in my 20s, working my way up in the world, and uneasy about my affinity for a philosophy even loosely attributed to a conqueror famous for massacring everyone who stood in his way (and many who did not). It took me months before I dared to test out the maxim on a friend.
“Do you think it’s true?” I asked.
“Of course not,” she said.
“You never feel that way?” I pushed.
“Never,” she said. “Why? Do you?”
I am told I am a competitive person. I grew up in a home where we were expected to talk about religion, politics, and why Stephen Sondheim is better than Andrew Lloyd Webber over dinner. We banged our hands on the table and ran to the nearby encyclopedia to defend our positions. We were good-natured know-it-alls. I still am. I like to be right. I like to beat my children at ping-pong. To be fair, they like to beat me, too. Friendly rivalry is what makes life fun, whether my city versus yours or my kid’s T-ball team versus yours (and despite adult insistence that the little kids just play “for fun,” everyone is keeping score anyway—because it’s fun; it is also what teaches children that losing, while not fun, won’t actually kill them).
Competition is as American as baseball, apple pie, and Irving Berlin. Who didn’t grow up taunting a sibling (or a best friend) with lyrics from Annie Get Your Gun? Anything you can do, I can do better. Anything you can be, I can be greater. And most important: Anything you can wear, I can wear better. Everyone likes being the best at something. You should see my kid beam when she walks in after school and says, “Guess what? I got an A on my paper.” Nothing could make me more proud.
Except knowing that everyone else got a B.
Maybe I am Genghis Khan. But I am no Gilbert Osmond. The charming, erudite, and utterly rotten villain of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady manipulates the brilliant, strong-willed and impossibly naive Isabel Archer into marrying him then uses her fortune to buy a life of exquisite things, of carefully cultivated envy and a weekly open house to which—and this is key—“people were not invited as a matter of course.”
I have met only a few real people who rival Osmond’s fictional ugliness. Still, I believe shades of Osmond live in us all. Consider: Would owning the Tiffany necklace that all your friends fuss over feel quite so gratifying if each of them had one, too? Isn’t the unspoken exclusion inherent in the expense or the rarity of a status item part of what gives it its allure?
My friend would say, “Of course not.” And yet, in recent years, I have watched in bemusement as convincing imitations of luxury-brand jewelry and handbags have landed among us like Sylvester McMonkey McBean on the beaches of Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches, adding and taking away stars until no one knows anymore who is “special” and who is not.
It is unsettling to observe otherwise reasonable women pretending to admire a pal’s new purse while actually hunting for signs of authenticity.
Which is not to say I am not also a snoot—about what I know, not what I own. Early in my married life, my husband, Peter, mentioned a politician’s pyrrhic victory. I had never heard the phrase, and, being a terrible speller in the days before Google search, I failed to find it in a dictionary. “No such thing,” I pronounced. A terrible speller too, he looked in vain for evidence to prove me wrong and was on the brink of surrender when he decided to call his know-it-all wife’s know-it-all father, who, maddeningly, really did know it all. Peter’s victory remains his favorite story. And believe me, his success was made much, much sweeter by the failure of his best buddy, me.
So, must one’s friends fail? Three decades after I first felt myself laid bare by the assertion, I can honestly answer: of course not. The naked truth is that schadenfreude, a flicker of a need for others to do less well than me, has lead to my more ugly moments in life. At 51, I am happy to report they are rare. Perhaps because life’s hard edges—illness, death, everyday heartache—have taught me that life is not a zero-sum game; rivalry makes it fun, but it is camaraderie, connection, and loving-kindness—not harm-joy—that give life purpose.
So there it is: Nothing makes me happier than seeing my friends succeed. I wish them prosperity, joy, at least as good a wardrobe as mine, and A’s on all their papers. Well, maybe a high B. What can I say? I’m always going to think my city is better than yours. (Admit it: so will you.) And I don’t care if you’re Genghis Khan; I want to beat you at ping-pong.
KAREN’s PICKS May 2014
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