On Competition

In the Eleventh standard, we had a lesson called The Other Side of the Hedge by E.M.Forster, in English (looking back now, we had some amazing lessons with good philosophical content). It is a satirical essay on the notions of progress we have in our civilized society.

To briefly sum up, the story starts with the protagonist walking briskly along a dusty road, lined by tall brown and crackling hedges on either side. He had been walking down that road for as long as he could remember, like everyone else he knows. It’s the only world he has ever known. He’s weary and stops by the wayside to rest. People jeer at him as they pass him. He is reminded of his brother, whom he had to leave by the roadside a few years ago because he couldn’t walk any further, and wonders whether his fate was going to be the same.

He feels a puff of cool air coming from the other side of the hedge, and he becomes curious to see what is there on the other side. He tries to peer through the hole in the hedge but gets stuck and has to wriggle completely to the other side. He’s amazed by the sight that he beholds- he had never seen such green grass, hills, meadows, the blue sky in its full expanse, clear pools before. He had known only the monotony of the road.

He meets an elderly man who greets and welcomes him. He asks the old man where this place led to, and he replies, “Nowhere, thank the Lord!”. That it led nowhere, and there could be a world without progress was inconceivable to our protagonist. Moreover, he’s puzzled by some peculiarities of this strange new world. When he saw a person swimming alone in the lake, he asks the old man, “Where are the others?”. He replies, “There are no others.” Again, it’s inconceivable for him that someone would be so foolish as to waste energy swimming alone, without anyone else to hold a race with.

He’s amazed to find in this world people he had known on the road, and the old man explains that people keep coming over to this side of the hedge when they are tired of “walking”. As they stroll around, he notices a gate from which ran a road just like the one he had been walking on for ever. The old man says, “It is through this gate that humanity went out countless ages ago, when it was first seized with the desire to walk… It is the same road. This is the beginning, and though it seems to run straight away from us, it doubles so often, that it is never far from our boundary and sometimes touches it.”

The day was getting older, and he told the old man that he should get going, back on the road. Though this world seemed pleasant, mankind had other aims and he felt he had to join them. But the old man wouldn’t let him go so soon. They passed by a group of people having their dinner, who invited the newcomer to join them, but he wouldn’t because he mistrusted them.

They now reached a new gate, similar to the first one and the old man says, “This is where your road ends, and through this gate humanity—all that is left of it—will come in to us.” His transformation is complete when he notices a person walking by and cannot believe his eyes when he sees that it was his brother, whom he had left by the road a long time ago.

This story influenced me deeply. It was a time when I had just started thinking about the problems with the human world, and had this feeling that there was something wrong with the world, and this story seemed to ring true. Right from the early school days, we are initiated into a world of competition, just like the road in the story. We are not aware that there is an alternative.

One of the main hurdles that we have, in escaping from the rat race, is our deeply ingrained belief that “progress” is essential to mankind. We believe that it is a natural law just like gravity, and to not progress would be to become fossilized. Of course, happiness is dynamic, not static, and we should be constantly renewing ourselves. But our notion of this renewal, along the lines of “progress” is misguided. Wherever we look in nature, we can see constant renewal in equilibrium with its surroundings. “Equilibrium” is the key word.

Also, in my previous post on Ishmael, I had mentioned how we have this misconception of “survival of the fittest” as an unbreakable law. But that is not how nature works, and that is certainly not the only way humanity can work. In fact, when you observe nature carefully, it is so diverse that each creature finds a niche, which suits its characteristics. I feel that our human world is similarly diverse and each one of us can find a niche which suits us. We don’t have to take part in the rat race, and keep “climbing the ladder” or “progressing on the road” (which doesn’t lead anywhere). For me, “success” is finding this niche which we can fit into, which gives us space to pursue everything that makes our life meaningful and worth living.

Note: The idea of niches evolved from a discussion with Ayyappadas, who says that our identity crisis is our failure to look for and create a niche for ourselves. When we follow the set trends of society that do not suit us, it’s likely that we lose a part of our identity.

6 thoughts on “On Competition

  1. While I agree in general with the futile nature of “competition” etc.., one thing that I dont quite understand is the below

    >> One of the main hurdles that we have, in escaping from the rat race, is our deeply ingrained belief that “progress” is essential to mankind.

    We had a discussion on this before also – “progress” the way I see it is mostly not a result of competition or any rat race, those things are just destructive forces. “Progress” is nothing but the inability of man to contain his/her “intellectual boredom”. Assume that we are all living in the most perfect place on earth – lush green everywhere, enough of all resources, perfect peace and harmony, no worries in life. Maybe 99% of the people would be happy in that situation to just lead the usual life, but there still will be 1% who has that insatiable desire to do something with his/her intellect. What is the solution for that ?


    1. “Progress” in this context does not refer to “progress of mankind” but the need to “progress personally”- the need to keep doing more things, keep buying more things, keep “climbing the ladder” etc.

      1. Yeah, “progress” is a crazy thing ! Doing what makes one feel life is enjoyable/useful/meaninful is all that matters!

  2. Progress is synonymous with the vector ‘change’ donning a positive direction. Another reason for this phasing drive towards success and progress is the reward. Mankind can never and never has been able to accept the diversity of the individual caliber. The society, as a dangerous living organism in itself, wants to normalize the wishes and potentials of individuals on a semantic scale and hence wants to test their survival on equal grounds through this concept called competition.
    If you’ve read Ayn Rand’s The Fountain Head, it gives you a beautiful notion of objectivism with the protagonist claiming that ‘my work itself is my reward’. Life on earth would be a different scope altogether if junta live by those ideas against the vacuum of competition.

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