love. week twenty.
city. new york city
The question must be asked: Is it possible to embrace a friend without distancing an enemy? Is it possible to make love, without establishing a foundation for hatred?
Let me explain.
Children tend to divide everything into good and bad. If you give them a toy, they love you. If you take it away (so that they can go to sleep, or eat, or go to school), they hate you. I can still vividly recall the hours of pain and rage when I realized, as a child, that my parents must actually “hate” me and only “love” my siblings because of some perceived slight I’m now sure was just in my head. “If you really love me, you’ll give me what I want.”
In this simple world of black and white, I chase the good and avoid the bad. At all costs.
As I matured, I realized that some amount of ‘bad’ can actually be good. And too much ‘good’ can turn out to be rather bad. I worked a bit harder for good grades and watched less tv so that I wasn’t too tired the next day.
In other words, I began to realize that life is not about chasing what’s good, but about achieving a balancing act between good and bad. Actually, the idea of calling something good or bad itself can become a bit ridiculous. Is candy good? Only in a sense. Is taking a bath bad? Only in a sense. Is studying bad? Is vacation good? These all turn out to be meaningless questions. The line between good and bad turns out to be something of a practical mirage.
Like the tightrope walker’s rod, both extremes help provide the necessary weight with anchors us down to our life, granting us a point of stability from which to operate.
But perhaps one step further, when notions of good and bad do appear, they always appear together. It is impossible to call something good without simultaneously calling its opposite bad. In this way, our structures of good and bad support, rather than undermine, each other. In order to have a healthy sense of goodness, you have to be equally perceptive of the opportunities for bad-ness. In order to choose the good, I have to reject the bad. This implies that I first notice what the bad is, realize that I actually could choose it (it is entirely in my control), and then intentionally turn around and choose the good. I must choose the good, it can never be chosen for me. A person who is oblivious to evil, is equally oblivious to virtue.
A rabbi once told me that the decadence of western culture can be summed up in our assumption that the opposite of pain is pleasure. Actually, the opposite of pain is comfort. Often, embracing certain kinds of pain will lead to higher forms of pleasure, and a total avoidance of pain will ensure that certain pleasures will forever remain outside of our reach.
Turning to the topic of love, how could I feel united with someone (in marriage, family, friendship, community), unless there’s an awareness of the limited refuge that we’ve erected against the sea of strangers? That is, a family can only exist in contrast to other families, a marriage against those outside the marriage, and friends amongst enemies.
Think about any unit. A cellular organism, a city, or a work of art. By necessity, the unit imposes a divide between itself and its not-self, and then seeks to organize whatever is designated as ‘self’ for maximum total value. In this way, establishing a clear opposition is an essential and healthy task for any group effort, whether it be an organic cell, a geographic city, or an oil painting. We would like to be this, and not that. I am married to you, and not her. I will choose this color, and not those.
One benefit of establishing boundaries is that it helps unite us in a shared aim. While New Yorkers may fight against each other to see who can build the tallest building, we are completely united in our desire to see that New Jersey never has one. While I may compete with my brothers over who has the coolest apartment, let someone else insult my brother’s home and I’ll instantly jump to his defense.
Within every relationship, what unites us is always greater than what divides us.
I sensed this for the first time after 9/11, when we realized that for all the shit that we put each other through, there are far greater threats from outside the city that affect us all. Unfortunately, there is no greater sense of community than that which follows a true disaster. The whole world felt that during the first weeks of covid. Human vs Disease. We all stood on the side of humanity, and our usual loyalties to race, religion, language, class, politics, country simply became insignificant and melted away. By knowing that I was capable of transmitting a deadly disease to my elderly neighbor just by passing her in the hall, I noticed for the first time just how interconnected and reliant we are on one another.
We need to feel a sense of genuine opposition before we can comprehend the possibility of an authentic unity.
Here’s a description of the very first days of WWI from the Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig:
And to be truthful, I must acknowledge that there was a majestic, rapturous, and even seductive something in this first outbreak of the people from which one could escape only with difficulty. And in spite of all my hatred and aversion for war, I should not like to have missed the memory of those first days. As never before, thousands and hundreds of thousands felt what they should have felt in peace time, that they belonged together. A city of two million, a country of nearly fifty million, in that hour felt that they were participating in world history, in a moment which would never recur, and that each one was called upon to cast his infinitesimal self into the glowing mass, there to be purified of all selfishness. All differences of class, rank, and language were swamped at that moment by the rushing feeling of fraternity. Strangers spoke to one another in the streets, people who had avoided each other for years shook hands, everywhere one saw excited faces. Each individual experienced an exaltation of his ego, he was no longer the isolated person of former times, he had his people to war unless from direct necessity, would have demanded such a sacrifice of blood unless evil, sinister, and criminal foes were threatening the peace of the Empire.
And in a philosophical context, Hegel emphasizes pretty much the same:
War is not to be regarded as an absolute evil. Just as the movement of the ocean prevents the corruption which would be the result of perpetual calm, so by war people escape the corruption which would be occasioned by a continuous or eternal peace. In peace the civic life becomes more and more extended. Each separate sphere walls itself in and becomes exclusive, and at last there is a stagnation of mankind. Their particularity becomes more and more fixed and ossified. Unity of the body is essential to health, and where the organs become hard death ensues. Everlasting peace is frequently demanded as the ideal towards which mankind must move. But the state is individual, and in individuality negation is essentially implied. Although a number of states may make themselves into a family, the union, because it is an individuality, must create an opposition, and so beget an enemy.
It is true that war occasions insecurity of possessions, but this real insecurity is simply a necessary commotion. From the pulpit we hear much regarding the uncertainty, vanity, and instability of temporal things. At the very same time everyone, no matter how much he is impressed by these utterances, thinks that he will manage to retain his own stock and store. But if the uncertainty comes in the form of hussars with glistening sabers, and begins to work in downright earnest, this touching edification turns right about face, and hurls curses at the invader. The seeds spring up afresh, and words are silenced before the earnest repetitions of history.
One final note remains to be highlighted. Just as we may or may not like those who are our allies, we may or may not like those who oppose us. Actually, it’s not uncommon for enemies to have far more respect for each other than they have for their own allies. (Anyone remember Trump?)
Think of an athlete. The choice of a rival says a lot about how the athlete sees themself. Between those who could hardly compete with me and those who are simply out of my league, the ideal rival is exactly at my level. As I become a better athlete, my corresponding rivals must also become increasingly better. To choose a rival, then, is a mark of respect. It’s implies recognition that we are truly matched. And, most importantly, each member of the rivalry walks away better from having competed.
Choose your friends with care, but choose your enemies even more carefully.
Your friends will support you, but your rivals will challenge you. At a certain point, you may not be able to distinguish between your greatest friends and your greatest enemies: they’ve become one and the same.
The German legal theorist, Carl Schmitt, elevated constructive rivalry to such dizzying heights that he tripped and became a literal Nazi. In his essay “Land and Sea,” he writes beautifully about the now-antiquated match-up between whalers and their prey, as they pushed each other to their extreme limits:
The history of the seas and of man’s choice of water as his element cannot be retraced properly without mentioning the legend of leviathan and its no less legendary hunters. Indeed, the topic is daunting. My modest hymn of praise would do justice neither to the whale nor to its hunter. How could one be equal to the task when talking of two wonders of the seas: the strongest living animal, and the most astute of hunters?
The whale hunters I am talking about were no mere ‘fishermen’ and even less machine-like butchers. Leaving the shores of the North Sea of the Atlantic in their sailing ships or their rowing boats, they were trailing their prey across vast sea expanses, and armed with harpoons, they were fighting a giant which knew how to combine astuteness with strength. Dangerous confrontation between two creatures, which without being fishes in the zoological sense, were roaming the sea. In that encounter, all the means brought to it by man were set in motion by the power of his muscles: the oars, the sails, and the deadly thrust of the harpoon. The whale was strong enough to capsize the ships and boats of its enemies by a single stroke of its tail. Herman Melville, who himself had served as a mate on a whaler, shows how a quasi-personal relationship was established between the hunter and his prey, a subtle tie made up of connivance and hostility. In this struggle, man would be lured ever farther into the elemental lower depths of a maritime existence.
The whalers were sailing the globe from the north to the south, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Unrelentingly following the mysterious routes of the whales, they were discovering islands and continents on the quiet. Melville makes one of these sea-combers say about the book by Captain Cook, the discoverer of Australia: this Cook writes books about such things that a whale hunter would not jot down in his deck book. Were it not for the whale, the fishermen would have never abandoned the shores. It was the whale that freed them from the coastline and lured them on to the high seas. It was the whale that guided us.
In our own times, would man have ever made it to the moon if not for the extreme sense of competition that existed between the USSR and the US? Hardly. Since that rivalry degraded, we’ve all stayed safely within Earth’s own orbit. Why take chances? Why test the waters?
Between love and hate, life and all of its wonderful possibilities stand suspended. And, if I’m ever brave enough to push away from my own harbor of safety and drift off into the sea of possibilities, it’ll be the whales who’ll have guided me.