We're a generation well-schooled in competition, those of us who are Baby Boomers or the cohort born just before the Boom. We learned our ABC's in incredibly crowded classrooms, competed fiercely for places in colleges and for jobs as we entered the work force in the mid-to-late 60's and early 70's. We've had to draw attention to ourselves, speak out and develop a sixth sense regarding how we measure up.
But this innate competitiveness sometimes seeps into areas and times of our lives where it does more harm than good.
I'm as guilty as anyone. I remember attending exercise and behavior modification classes several years ago at a hospital-based program for people whose obesity was putting them at high risk for serious illness and early death. We were all in the same situation and trying hard to get ourselves out of the health danger zone. And yet, I remember going into class and sizing everyone up immediately -- breathing a sigh of relief that I was only the sixth fattest person in the room. And I caught similar appraising glances coming my way.
Once, in a class at the clinic, I glanced briefly at a woman whose appearance initially horrified me: her bottom was so huge, she was too large for even two chairs. Fat and loose skin flopped over her knees and ankles. I felt bad for her. But I also felt a sort of guilty cheer that I might be obese but I wasn't like that! Still, when it came time to speak, I talked about my frustration at hitting a plateau after three months of spectacular weight loss. As the meeting ended, the woman came over to me and put a hand on my shoulder. "Don't be discouraged," she said. "You hit plateaus and then you go on. I started last August and have lost 130 pounds and just look at me. People might think I was just starting. But I'm seeing every single pound lost as a victory. And by stringing together all these little victories, we'll reach our healthy goals. Hang in there!" And she smiled warmly, giving my shoulder a squeeze. I felt both ashamed and encouraged.
I thought I had been cured. But I caught myself recently in the gym watching a woman come in, exquisitely dressed in street clothes, made up and coiffed as if for a party. She got on one of the lighter exercise machines and, with mincing little movements, expended the least amount of energy possible for maybe ten minutes. Then she strutted out, not a hair out of place nor a drop of sweat on her brow, smiling with satisfaction with her workout.
I wondered why this woman even bothered. I looked over at Babbette, our gym's 44-year-old model of fitness, running full-speed at the highest uphill setting on a nearby treadmill. She smiled. And it occurred to me that, as wonderfully athletic as she is, Babbette has never looked down on me as I push my still overweight, elderly self through a workout. Instead, she offers only smiles and words of encouragement. And I felt, once again, ashamed at my own silent snarkiness. Maybe this other woman deserves kudos for just showing up, for wanting to work out. Maybe it's a small, but important, beginning for her. We are all, once again, striving for the same goal: a healthier aging process.
So I'm giving myself a personal challenge: it's time for more compassion and less competitiveness.
It's time to stop the appraisals and comparisons and to start encouraging others at every level. After all, the important thing is taking that first step: showing up, doing what's possible, a little more every day.
It's time to give one another credit for trying, for persisting, for enduring. Whether it's in the gym or dealing with life changes or the indignities of older age, a friendly smile, a word of encouragement, support for a goal shared can mean so much.
At this stage of life, it's time to celebrate our own victories -- both large and small -- and to encourage and celebrate those of others.