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We can't help competing

May 3, 2012 - By Betty Starks Case

"Height is complicated," says Nathaniel Hollister, a spokesman for The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats. He's considered an authority on such records.

Height is complicated? Tell me about it.

When you are 5-foot-1, and all the growing kids in the family build their confidence by measuring their height against yours because you are the smallest, you learn young how complicated (and challenging) height can be.

Of course, Mr. Hollister's comment relates to the new One World Trade Center, now under construction in New York City at the site of the twin World Trade Center towers destroyed in the 9/11 attacks of 2001. But his comment, along with the emphasis on whose building is tallest, causes me to take another look at heights along with several other measures of excellence and reasons for competition.

Here are a few: Tallest. Biggest. Strongest. Fastest. Smartest. Prettiest. Sexiest. Brainiest. Etc.

Most of us are limited in choice of which potential to pursue. And most choose the attribute we are best fitted for. We can also elect to strengthen a weakness.

I learned that quickly when I started school, and the big kids thought they should ferry the little one to the other side in pum-pum pull-away, lest she get run over in the game.

They meant well. But I thought I was a big kid. Wasn't I 5? Hadn't I finally stopped sucking my finger?

Like Forrest Gump in the movie, I learned to run faster.

When siblings in my family of nine belted out sweet-sounding vocals. and my voice sifted through allergic rhinitis off-tune, I had to find other talents or get lost in the ever-present competition for recognition.

"If you can't sing, maybe you can dance," I reasoned.

I watched a couple of cheerleaders tap-dance. I asked them to teach me. They refused. So I taught myself.

I wasn't all grace, but I was lucky. In my new Wyoming school there were no dancing cheer leaders. A friend and I taught each other the steps we knew and created knew ones. We had a great time leading the cheers at basketball games in our home-made red taffeta skirts and white satin shirts.

Yes, competition can make us try harder. But it often becomes so distorted it brings out the worst of us instead of the best.

Wars generally are born of competition, of an apparent need to prove, "I'm bigger, braver, more clever, more powerful than you." It's a sort of never-ending game. A deadly one. And so destructive to the worlds men have worked long to build. To say nothing of the harm to innocent women and children -- men's real treasure and reason for being.

Maybe we just need to learn how to use competition to make us better. Without it, we might have less reason to struggle.

Whatever our height, speed, physical strength or appeal, our brains seem to me the body part with the greatest potential for behavioral improvement. Here's a strength we can feed, grow from, and share peaceably with others.

Last week I participated in a class where we were to learn how we might better use the gifts we were given to the benefit of church and community -- the idea being that we all have gifts, we simply need to recognize them.

My understanding is that my gift must be writing, since the urge has followed me for a lifetime. And, yes, I learned through competition. Especially when my humor entry in a state writing competition trumped that of a college professor. That in itself was humorous to me. But it made me get serious about writing.

When I began today's column, I felt the pending One World Trade Center's extreme height might be a challenge to al-Qaida, like, "Hit me again. See if you can knock down the tallest building in New York, third-tallest in the world."

A deeper look at challenge itself suggests the real one may be to ourselves.

How tough are we? How determined to win in keeping America free?

The form and strength of that potential, I think, will be determined by our brains.

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