by Andrew Last
The competition was to see who could be most unlike themself.
The man from the south was ﬁrst. He entered the machine, which was on standby, vibrating noiselessly, and sat in the chair. The door closed behind him. He did not know what was going to happen.
He was liked by all people in the south—he was the best conversationalist that they had ever had. When he spoke with people one on one, he gave all of his attention. Every part of his body listened: his eyes, his shoulders, his hands. With groups of people, he would bring everyone into the conversation. He helped people realise that they had something to say. And when it was his turn to say something, he said it with affection, without affectation.
So the people wanted to know: How unlike himself could he be?
The machine turned on, and there appeared before the man many faceless people—neither men nor women, but people nevertheless—who walked around in busy circles, talking loudly to no one. The people from the south, who were watching in their homes, saw the man move about the faceless people, talking loudly to no one, using words that otherwise he would never use, repeating himself endlessly, vociferating. His words were meaningless, drowning in a sea of noise. The man had become as faceless as the people in the machine. And the people in the south thought, happily, How unlike him!
The woman from the northeast was second. She entered the machine. The faceless people were gone. Now there was a swimming pool—its length and width stretched all the way to the horizon. The pool was shallow around its edge, but the woman could see that it became deeper and deeper in the middle. Parallel black lines arrowed towards the distance. She wanted to follow them.
The woman was the hero of the northeast. The people loved her for her perseverance, her determination, her sticktoitiveness. The medals and ribbons that she won, she won because she never gave up.
So the people wanted to know: What would she do in the machine?
The woman stripped to her underwear. She put her toes in the water, her feet. She looked at the black lines, followed them with her eyes until they vanished. To vanish was her goal. But instead of swimming towards the horizon, as she otherwise would have done, the woman ﬂoated on her back in the shallow water, looking up at the machine’s lights, which looked like the sun. She ﬂoated and ﬂoated and ﬂoated. When the lights went out, she got out of the pool, not feeling like herself. But the people in the northeast thought, Was she so unlike herself that she would win the competition?
Lastly was the old man from the west. He was respected for his ever-growing compassion. The heart is a muscle, he would say. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes. He was selﬂess: he gave not money, but time. He had spent his life among the needy, the worthy, forever walking the talk, forever making a difference, forever being the change that he wanted to see in the world. The old man was a proverb.
So the people wanted to know: Who would he be if he weren’t himself?
The old man entered the machine. He walked into a grassy ﬁeld, endlessly green. He came to a beautiful tree and saw in the fork of its branches an empty nest. The baby bird, red and wet, had fallen, was silently crying. The old man felt in his heart that he should return the helpless animal to safety. But he walked on. He came to another tree, from which another baby bird had also fallen. Again he walked on. Tree after tree, bird after bird, he walked on. It weakened his heart, his muscles, to do so, and when he was so tired that he could walk on no more, he dug with his hands a hole in the earth and lowered himself into it. There, he did nothing, did nothing, did nothing, until he felt so unlike himself that it didn’t matter what he did. And the people in the west smiled.
Now that the competition was over, everyone wanted to know: who had won?
The judges, who were from across the sea, could not decide. They commended the man from the south for his incivility, the woman from the northeast for her idleness, the old man from the west for his apathy. Each of them had shown that they could be unlike themself. But who was the most unlike themself? In the end, they decided that it was a three-way tie, and they rewarded the competitors with foreign things.
Before departing, taking their machine with them, the judges condemned the people of the south and the northeast and the west, who had watched the competition from their homes, for not competing, and for being so like themselves.