Rise to the Challenge

I have met tons of people that identify themselves as competitive. I’ve been told that is a natural part of human nature, and I suppose all living things must have a certain competitive drive in order to survive. I, myself, however, have never considered myself competitive. I’ve never been very interested in sports or even playing cards or board games. There is nothing inside of me that drives me to win. Winning a game or a sport means little to nothing to me. Yet losing still makes me feel badly about myself. Therefore there is really no benefit to me participating in competitive activities.

I’ve wondered about this aspect of myself since I became aware of it. I do think a lot of it stems from social anxiety, but there is another aspect I think might be relevant. Growing up as the youngest sibling, you learn pretty fast that the chances of you winning anything or outperforming your older sibling are slim to none. I got used to always losing every single game we would play growing up. One particular incident stands out where I was playing “Mouse Trap” with my sister and grandmother. When I lost I was so distraught and unwilling to surrender my cheese game piece that I cried and shut myself up in my room. From all of these experiences, I think I have internalized the idea that challenge and competition inevitably means failure and disappointment. This has become so ingrained in me that I feel no more likely to win games of chance than I do ones that involve skill.

To this day, I still don’t enjoy playing games at parties (drinking games are a bit more acceptable) and even the video games I play are much more about casual, steady progress and creativity than winning and losing or being challenged. Until recently this was all the further I really thought about this mindset of mine. So I don’t like games very much, that’s no big deal. I dug no deeper into the matter.

The other day, however, I realized just how much this aversion to challenge has skewed my entire worldview. After all, competition and challenge is something that we all encounter each and every day in our careers, in our relationships, and even within ourselves. How you choose to perceive and respond to these challenges has a huge impact on your self-perception and your overall quality of life. Only very recently did it occur to me that not only do I anticipate failure in games, but in the challenges I face in life as well. I’ve come to view any type of challenging situation as inherently negative, foreshadowing only failure and embarrassment, never as an opportunity for self discovery or personal growth.

I think one of the ways I can start to change this mindset, is by allowing myself space to fail. There was a wonderful example of this practice in the yoga class I did yesterday. Vrikshasana or tree pose, as well as all the other balancing poses in yoga, are a great place to start playing with this. Once a balancing posture becomes second nature and relatively easy to hold, it’s time to start pushing the limits of our balancing ability. Often a cue is given to try closing your eyes. If you’ve never tried this, it is exceptionally difficult to maintain your balance with the eyes closed. Normally, I ignore this option. I inevitably fall out of the pose and get upset with myself.

Yesterday the cue was given in a slightly different way though. Because of this, I was able to let go of the expectation or even the goal of maintaining my balance perfectly and staying in the pose for any length of time with my eyes shut. It wasn’t about how long I could manage to stay still, but simply what it would feel like to try. Once I released the pressure of perfecting the pose, I actually was able to do better at this challenge than I ever have been in the past. Not only that, but I didn’t feel any irritation or disappointment when I did fall out of the pose.

Whether you enjoy challenges or not, the fact is that you are going to be faced with them regularly. It’s not an option to avoid all challenge for the rest of you life. Rather than trying to avoid challenges, perhaps we can try to look at them in a different, healthier way. Sometimes it even helps me to imagine what it would feel like to be someone that is competitive or excited by the idea of being challenged. Despite my initial reaction, I do admit that there is a certain pleasure and even peace in being challenged. When I’m doing something new or difficult, I am usually more focused than usual. And the only thing I really have to fear is my own self criticism.

In order to let go of the outcome and my expectations for myself, I find it helpful to start off by viewing failure as a likely and acceptable option. It’s almost more pleasurable if I assume I am going to fail from the beginning. Success or failure was never the point most of the time anyway. The point of life isn’t to do everything perfectly all of the time or even most of the time. Life is about trying new things, being curious, and growing through adversity. Failure is a natural part of these things and what’s most likely holding us back from them. Once we realize that we have the choice to live happily with our mistakes and failures we can finally be free to explore and blossom as we were meant to.

How to do Vrikshasana | The Tree Pose | Learn Yogasanas Online | Yoga and  Kerala

Great Expectations

I’ve been reading a lot of Charles Dickens recently. I’ve finished A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. Now I am working my way through Oliver Twist. I have David Copperfield and Hard Times lined up after that. Reading these novels has been one of my favorite parts of the day for months now. After dinner, I have been curling up with a cup of tea, my fur children, and one of these books in my hygeekrog for at least an hour if not more each night.

I think that one of the reasons I find this new ritual so enchanting is the contrast between my warm, cozy, little nook and the lives being lived out on the pages in front of me. Even though they are works of fiction, somehow they make me appreciate my good fortune in life in a way I never really have before. There is a beautiful, simple dignity in the way the characters accept their fates and the circumstances they are placed in, no matter how unjust or painful. It makes me contemplate my self-righteous indignation at even the slightest inconveniences I face from day to day. How might I learn to let go and move with the events happening around me instead of against them? Characters being abruptly put in prison with no warrant or explanation make less of a fuss than I do when I’m cut off in traffic.

There are also other ineffable aspects of these novels that fill me with peace and curiosity. I think one thing is that they shine a light on our shared human experience that spans the length of time. No matter where you find yourself in history or in the world, we all must face quite similar hardships and injustices. Life is not about avoiding these things. It’s about how we face them. Dickens’ books are a reminder of the fortitude and resilience of all those that have come before us and survived and fought to improve society even in our species’ darkest moments.

I think one of the greatest lessons I have taken away from my evening reading is summed up perfectly in the title of one of these books: Great Expectations. While not meant in the way it is in the book, I have realized that I have great expectations. Not for wealth or social status, but for other people. I became rather disgusted and disenchanted with the entire human race quite early in life. I saw the incredible things that human beings are capable of and somehow came to seek out only this from my fellow creatures.

As children, we are raised to see only the best of human ability and achievement. We learn about soldiers sacrificing their lives for the freedom of their country. We hear about geniuses that have devoted their lives to advancing and/or healing society through new technology and medicine. We see the bravery, the resilience, the altruism first and foremost. Characters such as Hitler are painted as strange aberrations, rather than reoccurring figures or the other side of the coin of human nature. Therefore I think I absorbed the impression that human beings should all be more perfect, generous, and intelligent than anyone can truly be in reality.

This skewed perception led me to be let down a lot throughout my life. Ultimately it led to the pendulum swinging the other way entirely. I began to believe that human beings are all selfish, monstrous, and grotesque in our greed and disregard for others. It seems that now I only look for that hideous side of human nature in order to confirm what I now believe about our species. I take for granted the good I see in the world, because that’s just how it should be. Yet I still see every false step we take as a society as egregious and worthy of condemnation.

Charles Dickens’ works are a vacation away from that staunch, black and white thinking of mine. While the horrors of society are upfront and evident, Dickens shows that despite this suffering, this injustice, there is also deep love, selflessness, humor, and honor within us. Human beings are not the best creatures to ever live, nor are we the worst. We simply are. It’s okay to have high hopes for ourselves, those around us, and our society in general, but not to the extent that we lament any and everything that falls short of our great expectations. There is peace and contentment in taking what the world offers to you exactly as it is. Our ideals should be what guide us, not something seen as a guarantee. It’s okay to be proud and overjoyed by the small acts of kindness we encounter, precisely because they are not guaranteed. At the same time we cannot be shocked and disheartened by the opposite either. The complexity and mystery of life and those we share it with is what makes it interesting. It’s what makes life worth living.

Charles Dickens: Scourge Of Capitalists & Social Reformer - HistoryExtra