Every summer our family faces a conundrum. A petty one, to be sure, but it comes up more and more as our kids get older. I’m referring to the swim team question. Usually when a fellow pool-goer asks if we’re joining up, a simple “Nope, not this year” suffices. If pushed, I’ll mumble something about travel. If I spy a gaggle of parents debriefing the previous day’s meet after church on Sunday, I know to steer clear.

But now our boys are old enough to ask the question themselves. They see the practices and hear their friends talking and wonder why they’re not partaking. “Cause Mommy and Daddy don’t have six hours to kill every Wednesday evening,” I respond, unhelpfully.

That’s a lie. The real reason they don’t do swim team is because I believe in avoiding psychological terrorism wherever you can.

I’m only half-kidding. I swam year-round as a kid, then all four years of high school and continued into my freshman year of college. Butterfly was my stroke, and I was pretty good, especially in practice. Whatever the mentality of a champion is–the belief that you can’t lose–I didn’t have it, and no amount of willpower could summon it. Yet swimming kept me in shape and out of trouble, gave my adolescence structure, so I kept at it, convinced that one day I’d fulfill my potential.

No doubt plenty of kids survive swim team with their mental health intact. I’m sure some even have fun. I just wouldn’t count myself among them. To this day, a full twenty years after I “turned in my fins” on the deck of our college natatorium, all of my anxiety dreams involve the pool. I don’t remember any of the team bonding stuff. What I remember is feeling nauseated before races and disappointed afterward, no matter how well I’d done. I remember feeling royally relieved when the season was over. The whole thing was a massive head trip, at least for someone with my psychology. Come to find out, I did not thrive under pressure. Does anyone, really?

I suppose you could say that swim team, not school, was my personal crash course in the more noxious aspects of performancism. By that I mean, with each passing year, I made less and less distinction between my times off the block and my self. The pool was the public venue where I experienced the painful distance between who I wanted to be–and was told I could/should be–and who I actually was. After all, unlike a team sport, you can’t blame anyone else for the time on the clock. Every heat my self-worth was up for grabs.

Sounds neurotic, I know, but sports are a big, big deal when you’re seventeen. But then you grow up and realize that not everything is a competition, that swimming is just one more thing to enjoy or not enjoy, that there’s more to life than winning and losing.

Or is there?

Cue “How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition” by Daniel Markovits in The Atlantic. The article paints a picture of life among techno-charged elites that resembles an interminable swim meet, albeit with higher stakes and ever-shrinking areas of reprieve, yet without even the pretense of a team. Where Markovits uses the vocabulary of meritocracy and elitism, the piece functions as an extended treatise on performancism and its discontents. Discontents which, he notes, are experienced more severely the higher you climb on the ladder of success.

The basic thesis is a familiar one, namely, that performancism terrorizes not only those who fall short–the losers–but those who excel, AKA the winners. Strict meritocracy punishes the meritorious just as much as the demeritorious, independent of whatever structural biases or blindspot that’re already present. To return to the metaphor, the faster the heat, the more existential the fallout, or the less you drown, the more you drown. Here’s how he puts it:

Even meritocracy’s beneficiaries now suffer on account of its demands. It ensnares the rich just as surely as it excludes the rest, as those who manage to claw their way to the top must work with crushing intensity, ruthlessly exploiting their expensive education in order to extract a return.

Elites first confront meritocratic pressures in early childhood. Parents—sometimes reluctantly, but feeling that they have no alternative—sign their children up for an education dominated not by experiments and play but by the accumulation of the training and skills, or human capital, needed to be admitted to an elite college and, eventually, to secure an elite job… Where aristocratic children once reveled in their privilege, meritocratic children now calculate their future—they plan and they scheme, through rituals of stage-managed self-presentation, in familiar rhythms of ambition, hope, and worry.

Such demands exact a toll. Elite middle and high schools now commonly require three to five hours of homework a night; epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned of schoolwork-induced sleep deprivation. Wealthy students show higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse than poor students do. They also suffer depression and anxiety at rates as much as triple those of their age peers throughout the country…

I’m reminded of Mary Karr’s classic adage that, contrary to the hierarchy of suffering inherent to most class warfare (echoed in the article!), “even the most privileged among us suffer the torments of the damned just going about the business of being human.” Markovits goes on:

Elite students desperately fear failure and crave the conventional markers of success, even as they see through and publicly deride mere “gold stars” and “shiny things.” Elite workers, for their part, find it harder and harder to pursue genuine passions or gain meaning through their work. Meritocracy traps entire generations inside demeaning fears and inauthentic ambitions: always hungry but never finding, or even knowing, the right food.

Which strikes me as a pretty apt description of psychological terrorism, Speedo or no. No wonder Martin Luther urged the sinner to repent of their good works just as much as their bad.

All this leads to another familiar observation: “whereas aristocrats once considered themselves a leisure class, meritocrats work with unprecedented intensity.” [Or, as Seculosity has it, “if the protagonists in Jane Austen novels gloried in their idleness—their distance from the harried lower echelons of society who have no choice but to work—a couple centuries later the opposite holds sway: “keeping up with the Joneses now means trying to out-schedule them.”] Busyness itself has become a status symbol, which, combined with the seculosity of work, makes for a pretty miserable situation for all involved.

Markovits closes by highlighting an added wrinkle:

The rich now dominate society not idly but effortfully. The familiar arguments that once defeated aristocratic inequality do not apply to an economic system based on rewarding effort and skill. The relentless work of the hundred-hour-a-week banker inoculates her against charges of unearned advantage.

A closed circle of self-justification breeding drudgery breeding further self-justification breeding further drudgery and so on–pretty ingenious. A curse you might even say.

And yet, before we scapegoat the system (exclusively), Lord knows our self-justifying impulses predate our indoctrination into whatever form of performancism we’ve elected to pursue. I’m reminded, for example, of the interchange I witnessed between two six year olds at the bus stop yesterday, where, instead of saying good morning, one informed the other that he had the better teacher this year. Performancism reduces our fellow humans to competitors, i.e. threats, which is a lonely, miserable way to live.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I can’t help but wonder if this is where the capital-L Law of God might genuinely help us–or where we feel its loss most acutely. If the ever-shifting, ever-present little-l laws of our skewed meritocracy give us the illusion of meeting their demands (for that brief second before the next set appears), then the capital-L Law of God throws a wrench in the gears of deserving, revealing the flimsiness of even our fondest merits. Do not lust, do not worry, do not anger, give away everything, love your neighbor, love God with all your strength, etc. As far as I know, only two feet ever stood on top of that podium, and they had holes in them.

The resulting humility may be painful, but it does anything but isolate. The Law unites us in our common need, placing us at the (level) foot of a cross where, unburdened of entitlement, our eyes fix upward at that which has the power to rescue those drowned at the bottom of the pool: the uncontested merit of Another.

Ralph and Carter (and Fanny) know what I’m talking about: