Everything Will Be Alright: Against a Culture of Competition

Source: Getty Images

By Simon Li

I am living in a nightmare, from which from time to time I wake in sleep
— Ursula K Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

I have this recurring fever dream when I’m sick. It’s abstract, indescribable to me even though I can visualize it. At best, the description I give is only an approximation of the feeling — but that’s the terrifying part. During these dreams, I feel like I’m holding my breath, stuck in a tight space, and pinned down by a car at the same time. Or, to put it another way, having to re-experience the last ten years of my life with perfect consciousness of what is happening, knowing that I can do nothing for another ten years.

When I wake up, I usually shrug this feeling off. Obviously, because I’m sick, I have worse things to worry about outside the land of dreams. I forget about it within a day or two, never to be thought of again until the next bout of illness.

This feeling has begun to creep out of my dreams and into the real world. It infiltrates my mind, following me wherever I go. It is in the corner of my eye, always present, constant. There is no escape.

My days follow the same sickening ritual. I wake, in the ungodly hours of morning, and I go to school. I meander through the school day, half awake, half asleep, doing work often “just for the sake of work.” Even if it’s a topic I truly enjoy, I have no motivation to actually learn. Despite this, I feel a sense of duty to do the work, to try and get the best grade possible. I get home at around 5 P.M. each day. If I don’t take a nap (or colloquially, “crash” after school), I work on homework until, at the very earliest, midnight. I sleep, never more than seven hours, and then I wake up and repeat the ritual again (as frequent readers of the East Side News may note, I have not written an article for quite some while—this is directly because of what I describe above).

Even over weekends, that is, Saturdays and Sundays, I find no escape. Earlier in my senior year, college applications took over my weekends. I applied to fourteen schools, meaning I had to write roughly twenty supplementals, one personal statement, and various other application materials. This has gradually shifted to schoolwork. Over the past two weekends, I have spent a total of at least sixty hours doing school work. The Sunday before midterm week—two days ago at the time of me writing this—I spent fourteen and a half hours just doing homework. 9:30 in the morning to 12 at night. The day before, I couldn’t even celebrate the Lunar New Year with my family properly.

I feel the need to work, to be productive in my very bones. If I have unstructured time for myself, I’ll feel a nagging sense that I’m forgetting to do something, that I’ll end up regretting my leisure time. I can’t relax—I hate to use the phrase “rat race,” but that’s simply what it is. An endless cycle, doomed to be trapped for the rest of my life.

We have never worked this hard, ever, in human history. “But what about hunters and gatherers and feudal serfs? Didn’t they live in a permanent state of misery—?” Not quite. In his essay The Original Affluent Society, Marshall Sahlins argues that paleolithic humans were actually affluent, as their wants were limited and means plentiful. They worked three to five hour days, after which the rest of their time would be dedicated to leisure. Even serfs work less than the average American today, according to Professor Juliet Schor, who wrote that “The [serf’s] tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed… Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure.” Further, were our ancestors the ones in poverty, or are we? I cannot remember the last time I had a full week for myself to relax and enjoy. If this is civilization, then what a pitiful excuse of a civilization this is!

As such, my life has been robbed of any real joy or meaning. I feel as if I am simply observing myself, an entity within the brain of “Simon Li”, unable to escape, unable to change, unable to live. Like a puppet, or a Cordyceps infection from the TV show The Last of Us, my mind and actions are being controlled, manipulated.

I am living in a nightmare.

French Algerian writer Albert Camus would say that this is the feeling of the Absurd, or the conflict between our search for meaning and purpose in the world and the universe’s subsequent silence to our cries. We look for meaning and cannot find it. What is the purpose of what I am doing right now? Why has school taken over my entire life, to the point where I no longer can dedicate any time to myself? What am I doing wrong? What is the point of it all?

At the end of his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus relates the absurdity of human existence to the myth of Sisyphus (hence the title), who was sentenced by the gods to roll a boulder up a mountain for eternity. Just like Sisyphus, we strain ourselves each and every day, working endlessly to achieve our goals. As soon as the goal is met, there is more work to be done—the boulder rolls back down to the foot of the mountain.

It is the descent down, the period of consciousness and self reflection, that interests Camus. Describing Sisyphus’ descent, Camus writes: “I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end… Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent.”

Consciousness is thus a prerequisite for tragedy—it only happens because we are conscious, because we are fully aware of the human condition. Reliving the past decade would not be so bad if I had no awareness that I was reliving it. The fact that I do, the fact that I am aware that I am a puppet on strings, unable to do anything but work, work, work, makes existence tragic. I’m sure that readers will also relate, whether it be from schoolwork too, or from a job. There are always moments of lucidity (in which I am writing this) and subsequent moments of despair.

I have come to realize that most, if not all, of the pressure I have to be successful academically stems from a competitive school environment. I don’t know if this is a universal experience here. I do know that recently, a cheating scandal occurred in select AP classes—in some of the hardest courses offered here—suggesting that a culture of competition does exist.

Growing up, my parents never forced me to be “good at school.” Ironically, reading books in fifth grade math class got me placed in advanced math classes (I claimed I was too bored, which I was). I simply didn’t care—I went to school to learn what interested me, and if it didn’t, I would just not pay attention.

As high school rolled around, I started to feel the need to get better grades—for college, of course. In school, at least for me, there is this prevailing idea that one “must” attend a prestigious university (by getting good grades). A subpar education will not do. Subsequently, one “must” get a high paying job. Then, and only then, can you be happy. The aims of education transform from learning to job-seeking.
I sacrificed four years of my life to this attitude.

I would strive for a hundred on every test. To be completely honest, I still do. The idea that I could have done better just doesn’t sit right to me—I feel inadequate and useless. I tell myself that I will “clutch up on the next one,” and that I will need to study even harder than before. It happened just today. But is this me or was it implanted within me?

When I do get hundreds, the joy is momentary, producing sparks but no real flame. In the words of Kobe Bryant (who has just won back-to-back games), “What’s there to be happy about? Job’s not finished.” (emphasis mine). There is always the next test, the next assignment, the next quiz I need to ace. There is always one more thing that needs to be done, and then one after that, and so forth.

This is the nightmare.

Most of us are not conscious of this. Most of us will never realize this. Most of us perceive this as normal. Well, maybe I should just suck it up, right?

A few hours ago, as I am writing this, I got off the phone with my grandparents congratulating me for getting into my first college. Days before, I got an acceptance letter from the University of Buffalo (UB). Here, we don’t view UB as a prestigious institution. It is a state school, a flagship now, but a state school nonetheless. It is the complete antithesis of a competitive East kid’s hopes and dreams—you only go to UB if you’re dumb or saving money. UB is what is known as a safety school, one where you are automatically admitted. You only apply there in case you face the worst case scenario: getting rejected from your top choices.

Yet my grandparents were immensely proud of me—so happy and elated that their grandson would be going off to college (& beyond) next year. “I just wish that you can be happy,” my grandfather told me, “that’s all I wish for. Nothing else matters.”

This made me realize that, as a matter of fact, I was proud too. Yes, proud of my UB acceptance, the one I knew I would get.
No longer did these silly little numbers in the gradebook mean anything—I realized that all I wanted to do was to be happy. It didn’t matter what college I go to, or what grade I get in AP Calc BC or Macro Economics. The task of rolling the boulder becomes inconsequential; I should instead enjoy what I do each and every day instead of waiting for that day to come (it is why I am writing this now, instead of furiously consummating myself with homework).

Likewise, despite his fate, Camus ultimately reaches the conclusion that Sisyphus is happy. He becomes better than his fate and “concludes that all is well.” He escapes the monotony and is free. The closing lines of the essay read “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” It’s these moments—such as writing this piece—that fills my heart. Over the past four years writing commentary, that was what drove me to continue writing. The little things that I truly enjoy, from gardening to writing newspaper articles to biking to reading to playing the violin, are what set ablaze my happiness—not competition, grades, and colleges.
I am awake.

To those of you still with me, particularly underclassmen (but upperclassmen can still learn from this)—I would like to offer some pieces of advice:

Firstly, don’t overly stress over your grades. I know, I know, it can be tough. Even now, it is tough for me to do. Come to school ready to learn, to obtain an education—not a numerical grade. One will stick with you for life. The other? You’ll soon forget.

Secondly, be yourself in these formative high school years. Spend your time doing what you genuinely enjoy and pursuing your passions. In middle school, I loved debate—so I joined Model UN and Newspaper club so that I could articulate my opinions and perspectives. If you don’t know what your passions are, then try to expose yourself to a variety of extracurriculars, clubs, and electives to get a good grip on what to do and don’t like. Whatever you do, do not spend your time here trying to build up a resume for college—that is not you.

Thirdly, don’t forget to give yourself a break. We often overwork ourselves without realizing it until it is too late—working on homework until two, three, even four in the morning. Your life is not only about school. It shouldn’t only be about school. In fact, this is why the Irish President Michael D. Higgins wants to ban homework altogether—if only we had some legislators with an ounce of common sense here!

Finally, you will be alright. Everything will work out in the end. Sure, you may not be able to say you went to Harvard, but what does any of that matter? As long as you are truly, genuinely happy, you will become free—stuck no longer to the rat race. You will have overcome the absurdity of life. You will have lived.