…Ben sincerely believed he was not competitive. He did his best, true, had done his best in such traditionally competitive arenas as academics and athletics. Yet while it was pleasant to sink the winning goal on the soccer field (he had played forward), it was also pleasant simply to attempt sinking that goal. When your team ran a streak, you were buoyed by your teammates’ elation yet your own satisfaction derived not of triumph but of camaraderie, earned exhaustion, and the exercise of skill. You couldn’t be first rate if you believed first to be an arbitrary distinction: if you denied the validity of hierarchies. You could, however, be good. Ben had always wanted to be good. He simply had a hard time with the comparative and the superlative: from better and best you inferred absolute values, from absolutes you were led, however you protested, to absolutism. It had seemed to Ben, in high school, that in a team sport like soccer one needn’t be competitive if one aimed solely to be good, whereas if you went solo (whether one-on-one in tennis or against other singletons swimming) you won or lost. An adequate swimmer and tennis player, he avoided the issue by not trying out for the teams.
The journey not the arrival matters, the act not the result, the means more than the end. Unless you lived in a fascist society or participated in a capitalist economy—they added up to the same thing. You would be bent, you would be broken. Distressed, depressed, Ben took the last drag off his cigarette and threw it away. If you bothered to think you were bound to fetch up against unpleasant conclusions, among them your own innocent hypocrisy. For he wished both to prosper and to excel—if on his own terms—and believed saintliness as a goal or a strategy not so much impracticable or misguided as fundamentally dangerous: a form of absolutism, the silvering of a mirror that reflected intolerance, bigotry, dogma. After best or first came right and soon enough only.