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September 18th, 2018
The cultural image of Darwinian struggle might be summed up as two animals battling it out for life and death. Naturally this betrays a lot of the nuance in his Origin of Species, and yet, this simple contest is an unfortunate benchmark of our society: for some reason, we crave the winner and the downfall of the loser. Whether it be MMA fighting or the Olympics, War, or even a simple bet between friends, much of our thinking rides on this structure of victory.
If man were a more purely solitary species, like say a leopard, or a white shark, this would make more sense. Most interactions of such species are an effort for victory in order to eat and nourish their bodies.
But man is first and foremost a cooperative species. Our infatuation with being solitary opponents is clearly subordinate to this desire as evidenced by our sprawling, innovative, planet-encompassing culture and society. By default, none of what we have accomplished can be built in isolation.
Dolphins and Orcas live in pods, wolves and some dogs hunt in packs, ants build elaborate structures to house their family, but we as humans take cooperation to a whole new level. One never glimpsed before in the history of the planet. Our drive to cooperate is so much at the forefront of our efforts that we even try to cooperate with a large number of other species, whether this be a depressed whale jumping in a pool or a dog running through wreckage looking for survivors. But our cooperation with each other is tantamount.
Nearly every building, every manmade object we can see, the phone we read or listen to this on, the desktop computer, the books on our selves, the food we have in our fridge, even the language we use to understand this sentence was the harvest of vast amounts of cooperation and creativity between people.
In the light of this megalithic cooperation we’ve achieved, our near obsession with victory seems a bit out of place. Surely competition has been a huge driving force for much of the success that society has achieved, but on such a small level, as say, a conversation, it seems counter to our deepest wishes to be so hell-bent on victory.
A simple argument is the most puzzling example, and we see it all the time and everywhere. Whether it be a presidential debate, or a quarrel between lovers in the next grocery isle, we are depressingly quick to set up a rickety power dynamic scaffolding to see who gets to be king of the hill. Perhaps we do this because a room full of leaders is no team at all, but this stark view of individuals does us a disservice once again. A room full of true leaders would be an agile group, full of individuals who are capable of taking the lead when they can, or who can become a different, important aspect of cooperation. Think of someone driving a car who turns to the passenger and says “Take the wheel for a second.” The passenger jumps into the leading roll for a moment. There is no bickering, no crushed pride, nor a desire to prove who is better because the aim of both people is clear: to get farther down the road safely.
And yet in arguments of all sorts, we are quick to forget our common human goals in favor of the current pedantic flavor of this or that viewpoint, which may or may not be verifiable in a scientific way.
We would do well to ask: What is beyond victory in this argument?
Are we best served to dig a deeper trench for our threatened view point? Or can we look at our ‘opponent’ as a kind of gold mine. But one that has not been excavated. One that requires some good questions and hard patience to find the goods.
The word conversation, from converse, simply means to ‘live among, and be familiar with’.
How are we working towards the point of conversation if we are hell bent on winning an argument?
It’s long been said that we should keep our friends close and our enemies closer.
A first glance at this adage makes one’s eyes grow thin with cynicism and we see humanity as a deceptive species, and because of this we need to watch out backs. Keeping enemies close seems like an easier way to keep tabs on their movements and therefore increase our chances of thwarting their aims if we see their crosshairs nearing ourselves.
There is, however, another way to interpret this saying.
Perhaps it is asking us to become closer with our enemies, not so we can keep tight tabs on their movements, but so that we can actually get to know them better. To converse with our enemies so that, in due course, they cease to be enemies. Perhaps the saying is telling us that we have enemies because we have not gone through the difficult process of getting to know our enemy.
The word ‘enemy’ comes from the Latin meaning literally ‘not friend’.
Perhaps the saying is indicating that some one is ‘not a friend’ because we have not brought them close enough to ourselves.
We’ve perhaps taken the word in a new and unwholesome direction. According to the Latin, it’s more accurate to define enemy as a stranger. Someone who we simply do not know, and such a definition makes this second reading of the old saying a bit more fitting.
We must ask, what if we did away with the current concept of enemy? Even just as a thought exercise. How would we reimagine our interaction with such people that are strangers, or not friends?
Perhaps we can redefine enemy as ‘not yet a friend’.
We need not even go this far as to try and convert enemies into friends. We can look much closer to home. To the arguments we have. We can thoughtfully pause and ask ourselves: “what’s the point of this relationship and this interaction, at their core?” Am I honoring it with my words and actions? If not, how would we better honor the spirit of cooperation?
So that we can get a little farther down the road, safely…
This episode references Episode 23: Pause. If you’d like to fully explore the reference, please check out that episode next.
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