The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016
He infuriates you with the effortless way he steals your place. With his casual put-downs, the way he siphons off the attention. You feel your cheeks flush, your palms stick to the table. An urgent need to interrupt as everyone congratulates him on his recent success. You start boasting. You lie! You hate him for his scheming. But you hate him more for being better at it than you, leaving you flustered and bamboozled, with tears of frustration pricking your eyes. The only thing worse than this imposter is the fact that you’re related to him.
Is rivalry an inevitable part of being human? Are possessiveness and jealousy, the desire to overtake, and the fear of being left behind all facts of our psychology? The seventeenth-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes thought so, arguing that human nature was essentially competitive, and life a “warre of every one against every one.” In the nineteenth century, the intellectual harbingers of evolutionary theory seemed to cement this vision of life as a battle over scarce resources. The most extreme thought those weakened by illness or poverty, unable to live unassisted, were simply its inevitable casualties: “It is best they should die,” wrote Herbert Spencer, who first coined the phrase “the survival of the fittest.” The term is often wrongly attributed to Charles Darwin, though he himself took a more measured view, arguing—with tales of gallant monkeys and loving crustaceans—that COMPASSION and altruism were just as important for survival as one-upmanship.
At the end of the nineteenth century, one of the effects of the new evolutionary theory was an interest among child psychologists in the competitiveness and jealousy of children. The idea that animosity might exist between siblings runs back to Cain and Abel. But when child psychologists began to investigate the phenomenon of “sibling rivalry,” as it was dubbed in 1893, they treated it as a natural instinct—the great sharp-elbowed race for survival in microcosm.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, perhaps in part due to anxiety about family breakdown (see: JEALOUSY), nervousness about sibling rivalry caught on. Writers of child-rearing manuals portrayed children as envious and Machiavellian in their plotting, and advised parents to restrain them lest the next generation should grow up emotionally disfigured by resentment. Smaller family sizes exacerbated the problem, since as fair distribution of resources (attention, love, food) became theoretically possible, their lack was all the more obvious. In his 1949 play Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller questions the idea that competition will ultimately bring rewards. Happy and Biff Loman are incapable of speaking to one another without sparring, while their father, Willy, despairs of life in the overcrowded city: “The competition is maddening!”
Today’s child manuals give sibling rivalry less attention. Perhaps we have come to see it as less of a problem. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, most Western governments have come to accept—rightly or wrongly—that encouraging private commerce and a free market will make society more efficient and prosperous. Child psychologists seem to have followed suit, arguing that a little rivalry might help a child flourish. Claire Hughes from the University of Cambridge has suggested that children display ingenuity and creativity in figuring out what will most irritate their siblings. She links rivalry to increased motivation and flexibility, and even to emotional intelligence since one-upmanship requires us to understand how our own behavior affects other people’s feelings.
The great Renaissance humanist Michel de Montaigne would not have been surprised. In his essay “Of the Disadvantage of Greatness,” he argued that elbowing one’s way to the top tests strategic thinking, helps cultivate virtues such as COURAGE and resilience, and allows us to taste the extremes of our emotions—JEALOUSY, TRIUMPH, ANGER and VENGEFULNESS. Those who have the “ease and slack facility of making everything bow beneath” them, he wrote, are “sliding not walking; sleeping not living.”
The paradox, of course, is that in this case it really is the taking part that counts. As Montaigne knew, once you get to the top, life becomes insufferably dull.
See also: LIGET; SMUGNESS.