173: Romance and “Self-fulfillment” (Wendy Wasserstein)

“Scoop: You want other things in life than I do
Heidi: Really? Like what?
Scoop: Self-fulfillment. Self-determination. Self-exaggeration.
Heidi: That’s exactly what I want.
Scoop: Right. Then you’d be competing with me.”
                -Wendy Wasserstein, The Heidi Chronicles

In Africa there is a concept known as ubuntu—the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world, it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.”
                -Nelson Mandela

                Perhaps competition is often a silly system. That’s a big claim. I’m making it.
                Neil Simon has a scene (adapted from Chekhov) in which two old men argue over what would make the best lunch. In a quick tangent, one of these Russians describes picking up a newspaper and finding “only good news:” “France is having political trouble, they’re starving in Ireland, England is in a financial crisis…but here everything is good.” Competition is supposed to bring out the best in us: it’s supposed to inspire us towards new heights and new ideas. More often, as far as I can tell, at least the way we do it today, it just makes us wish for and delight in other people’s failings. It makes us defensive, and scared for ourselves, and mean. It makes us cheer as a player from the other team gets hit really hard, and maybe hurt; it makes us think more about winning than about what we’re doing. It makes us glad that they’re starving in Ireland.
                If I’m not careful, Wassterstain reminds us, then your self-fulfillment seems to threaten mine. ‘There’s only so much power and wealth and control to go around, and it’s mine,’ says a greedy desperate brat inside. If I follow that voice, I lose, or I end up the king of an empty world. If my idea of living well involves living in a world with other people–if I imagine myself with parents and siblings and lovers and friends–then the competition really isn’t there. Heidi understands that, I think. Scoop can’t see it. We build our competitions, but before them, within them, there’s cooperation. There’s ubuntu, and I am–I am alive, I am fulfilled, I am here–because we are. I don’t want a kind of self fulfillment that puts you on the sidelines. I want a kind of fulfillment that celebrates you and the world as much as it celebrates me. Look around. I want a kind of fulfillment as full as all that.

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