One thing that has always felt unfair to me, competing against an equally talented artist to win honor, power, prestige, favor and reward. Why? Because someone else has to lose in order for me to win. Or I have to lose in order for someone else to win. Most of the time it is the latter. I am told that losing builds character, will make me strong, but all it has ever done has made me feel not good enough. Losing after spending a great deal of time and energy on a project that is only important to win a contest distracts me away from actually working towards a practical goal of my own. When I should be working to better myself, I am instead doing everything for the approval of someone else whom I have deemed superior to me, usually a person I consider an authority or hero. And how did they get to be in that position? They either worked very hard or…
They beat someone down to get on top.
If we have to fight, no matter what the game, in order to gain a victory, no one really wins, because someone has to lose. To gain a victory, one has to fight, and most of the time the contest is never really about who is the most skilled, talented, or lucky, it’s more about who is the most ruthless bastard at getting what they want. In any contest, people duel for approval and attention, hoping to be picked, some put each other down with insults and satire — psychological torture — to weaken their opponents’ confidence to get ahead. We compete not to prove our honor, we compete to be superior, but are we really proving that we are the best when we have to destroy someone else to do it? Is it necessary or fair to compete for a prize that only we will benefit from?
When we are pitted against each other we are not working for the common good, nor are we achieving awesomeness by being the best human beings we can be, instead we are displaying our brutality. It is the basis for all wars — someone beats someone else to gain an unfair advantage — and the reason why men die defending the weak — one power has to stand up for the disadvantaged party. Competition is not about empowerment, it encourages power-over-others. The lesson we end up teaching by continuing this social ritual is that it is acceptable to make yourself superior over others. Weakness is not to be tolerated in others, especially so in ourselves.
When I was in elementary school, public spanking was still tolerated and approved as a way to punish academic weakness. I had a learning disability that went undiagnosed until I was 19, so you can imagine how I struggled and, out of fear, had to compensate to stay out of trouble. Not only did I have to fear coming home to getting a whooping from Mom if I got bad grades, I also had to deal with the very real possibility of facing the principal’s wooden paddle, displayed in all its horrible glory, in his office for every kid to see each day as we made our way to class. One spring semester I came awfully close to getting spanked. I was about to fail Math, but two other kids did worse than I did, and it was very clear they had some kind of disorder much worse than mine. I made it to the next grade, just scraping by with a C and escaping summer school as well, yet they were kept behind.
I will never forget the day the entire school was assembled to watch the public spanking of those two boys. We were told that we were shown this for our own good, to keep us from making the same mistake, and that if we continue to improve we won’t ever be punished like this. As those boys screamed, we were all shocked silent. After that, the boys faced further humiliation, ruthlessly picked on at the playground and cafeteria, especially by smarter and more popular kids. The popular kids were also known to be “favored” in church as well, coddled and treated well by adults as if they were chosen by God.
I hated them.
After I completed sixth grade in 1982, public spanking was finally against the law, but the fear of humiliation and being beaten for being weak or not being good enough at something never left my mind. I never allowed myself to simply relax and be myself in school, or at anything, for a long while. The conditioning to be THE BEST and to push yourself all the time is still hard to unlearn. Having drive and determination is good, but one should acquire it from a source of kindness, out of a love for your fellow humans, not out of a ruthless urge to be better than everyone else and stay on top by keeping other people down.
This is one of the reasons why I’ve never liked sports or reality television shows where people are faced with outrageous challenges. Competitions can be entertaining to watch, but it all loses its flavor when I witness the ugly coming out in people. It is like watching your brother or sister bitching at you during an off moment on a camping trip, it’s not something you want broadcast, let alone photographed and saved to be shared in your photo album! You want to choose to remember the fun you had on the trip, right? Yet the drama and the harsh behavior between competitors fuels the gossip on all social networks. All that bitching encourages dishonor between human beings. We make heroes out of people who don’t deserve it all because they are famous for nothing. The famous become public domain, rarely using their fame for causes to better humanity. They advertise products that promote our vanity and continue to sell tabloids that are not worth the paper they are printed on.
There is another kind of contest-ing that I do not like, one that I have decided to never participate in ever again, and that is submitting artwork or written material to win a celebrated artist’s or writer’s approval in order to be given a gift or win a favor from them. The results are quite disappointing every time, not because the one who is picked isn’t talented, but because once again, it is more about winning approval and pleasing one person who, no matter how well executed your work is, may not understand or appreciate your perspective. The judge in these contests (sometimes they are juries of artists or authors) seem to be looking for a “mini-me” that they can take under their wing. Yet even when I’ve attempted to please a judge, that tactic does not always work. It is a gamble. You invest more money and time into something you have a 10% chance of winning. As with advertising, you only have about 10 seconds to capture an audience’s attention. If the judge is particularly well-known, they are going to have a ton of submissions, and a large panel of people assisting them in narrowing down the best. There are more chances of you not making the cut.
Best get used to disappointment… fast.
I have always said that disillusionment has been one of my greatest teachers. This has been true because I have made many heroes. Those heroes have shown me they are liars. Most of my heroes were comic book artists and authors. The competition in the comic book industry has always been fierce. My first close and personal hero rose up in the ranks to make his first million by stepping on a lot of toes. He was my first connection in the business and I must have been like a tag-along little sister with stars in her eyes following him around. He may have been frustrated with me, but how could someone I looked up to so much treated me so mean in front of his peers? Not everyone we look up to deserves to be a hero. I have seen my heroes wear many masks, make fun of the very people who worship them, and take for granted the cool job they have making believe for a living. We pay them to lie. That is the truth. Let us not be blind to the fiction-makers.
I thank my first comic book industry hero for breaking my heart the way he did, because it freed me from falling for the bullshit that so often keeps my head out of the game. The game? For fifteen years I competed for jobs in that business and found out that it was not right for me. Why fight when all I am really great at is to create? I am no longer as bitter as I was and I am content to be at home producing as much work as I can. I do not have the aspirations I once did to be the best. I now have better goals and challenges to meet that involve helping others.
Last year I collaborated with the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to produce a comic book printed entirely in the Ojibwe language. The goal wasn’t to make money, or even to make history, it was to provide a book that will get the Chippewa people, and others, interested in learning and using the native language that we are trying to preserve. I want to do more projects like that, ones where I don’t have to compete to prove I am worth a damn, but one where I give hope and help to others. Especially inspiration to other little girls like I was, the girls who make believe and live for dreams.
Yet still, on occasion, I find myself tempted to step up to the plate and count myself back in the game. Especially when I want to be as admired as I admire someone else. The little girl with the stars in her eyes still wants to believe in a hero, still aches for someone to prove to her that they are worthy to be praised, but also she wants to prove she is good enough — no, the BEST — woman worthy of your love.