Tuesday, June 2, 2020
would train runners from all the schools in the region over the summer, then relentlessly compete against them in the fall, then bring them back together to train in the winter. His world was the runner’s world, in which your rival is your greatest friend.
At the time, I did not really care much for training; I just liked winning. Van was easily the most knowledgeable coach in our region, and I remember being somewhat frustrated that he would share his expertise with our competitors.
With winning races as my ultimate goal, any assistance to other runners was counterproductive. For me, competition was zero-sum; if someone else won, I lost. Van saw competition differently. Van saw competition not as the end, but as a means to the greater ends of self-discipline, community, and true excellence.
Cormac McCarthy, in his 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road, explores these competing views of competition. In this post-apocalyptic novel, an unnamed man and his son travel south over an ash-covered road, trying to outrun the harsh winter. Resources are scarce and many of the survivors have resorted to cannibalism.
The man reassures his son that they are two of the “good guys” because they do not eat fellow humans. Nevertheless, the man resists most of his son’s pleas to help others they encounter on the road, embracing a scarcity view of competition. The man admirably protects and shares with his son, but the man treats nearly everyone else with suspicion and violence. The father reminds his son to “always be on the lookout” and even after finding a cellar full of provisions, the father quickly turns his attention to trying to find another gun. His gun is down to its final bullet, so his power to fight off others is tenuous.
The man clearly loves his son, and the man appears well-intentioned in his attempts to do what is best for his son. But by trying to protect his son through selfishness, the man contributes to the cruel world that his son will inherit. The man tends to assume the worst of those they encounter on the road and, as a result, none of his compassion for his son spills over into the world at large. Selfishness, ruthless competition, and distrust leaves the world bleak and drains life of its meaning.
At the end of the novel, shortly after the boy’s father dies, the boy encounters another man. Following his father’s example, the boy points his pistol at the stranger. After a bit of conversation, the boy begins to let down his guard. But the boy remains a bit unsure, asking: “How do I know you are one of the good guys?” The stranger admits “You don’t. You’ll have to take your shot.” Unlike his father, the boy does not continue in distrust, and the boy does not resort to violence. The boy goes with the stranger.
The stranger rewards the boy’s trust by leaving a blanket—that they could use to help them survive—to wrap the boy’s dead “papa.” In a freezing world where survival is uncertain, this is an extreme act of kindness that strikes against cold utilitarianism. Even in a land of very limited resources, life means much more than simply using power to survive.
The boy and the stranger were both armed. The more powerful one could have killed the other and stolen his supplies. In a sense, the more powerful person would have “won” the competition, but he would have only secured a bit more time in a decidedly ugly world. In the novel, however, both the stranger and the boy risked a shortened life, but they seemed to gain beautiful friendship and the priceless experience of shared sacrifice.
Competition is not altogether evil. As Coach Van Townsend knew, healthy competition can be used to inspire and it can even help build community out of shared striving and respect. But when “winning” becomes the ultimate goal, and virtue is trampled, the world can quickly turn cruelly cold.
(Note: Anything insightful I have written was likely drawn from conversations with my brilliant literature professor brother. Anything foolish is of my own making.)