“And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger...” (Genesis 25:22–23)
The Nightmare of History
In the book of Genesis is said that Esau and Jacob were at war even in the womb. This ancient story—and other stories of warring brothers such as Cain and Abel—highlight the fact that rivalry is the central wound of civilisation. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” said Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce’s main protagonist. History is the war with the eternal adversary within and without. And yet the Samaritan made a gesture of anti-rivalry—and a protest against history—when he picked up a dying untouchable in a ditch.
Throughout history there have been various interventions of the anti-rivalrous. Certainly, most great religious leaders have tried to teach us how to ‘wake up’ from rivalry. Perhaps we even can say that enlightenment is the transcendence of rivalry. Anti-rivalry is anti-tribalism. Seeing others as sovereign souls beyond tribal membership leads to heroic, or at least kindly, gestures that make the world more liveable.
The search for anti-rivalrous modes is the search for the holy grail, the search for a ‘soul’ if you like. The grail-soul is that ineffable spirit, the inexhaustible resource, beyond matter and energy. It the source of language, laughter, and beauty itself—a symbol of our highest potential. But people don’t recognise the holy grail of anti-rivalrous activity until the destructive rival is seen within themselves. Before meeting the rival ‘out there’ we have to find him ‘in here’: the one who is most intimate and near, and yet most unseen. In other words, we need enough anti-rivalrous intelligence to slay some pretty nasty dragons.
The beauty of anti rivalry modes won’t be seen until rivalry is fully encountered, until we are ready to go down the rabbit hole of our own distortions and denial, to meet the homicidal queen and the mad hatter. ‘I can’t tell you what The Matrix is’ says Morpheus to Neo in the famous red pill blue pill scene, ‘You have to experience it for yourself’. We can’t wake up from the nightmare of history — from our ego/memory bondage — until rivalry has become too painful to bear, and until the decision to act for the good, the true and the beautiful has been made. This can only be pointed to, it can’t be prescribed.
(Note: I use poetic language like soul or grail to describe what can’t be quantified or made too literal. The more anti-rivalrous language gets, the more mythopoetic — at the same time the more clear, for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. Poetic words help us to embody experience, to access what can’t always be perceived with the abstract, rational eye.)
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn tells us that there is a deep, seemingly intractable, rivalry that exists within every person — ‘a line dividing good and evil that cuts through the heart of every human being’. The real dragon we need to slay is therefore the eternal adversary within. And the most formidable rival of all, the ego dragon, isn’t going away any time soon.
The monster under the bed
The archetypal rivals are alive in our own consciousness, and are mirrored in our physical brain. According to Iian McGilchrist our divided, asymetrical brains present to us two rivalrous versions of the world. (See Iian McGilchrist masterful book The Master and His Emissary to explore this in depth). McGilchrist tells us that the right hemisphere gives us the depth of experience, whereas the left gives us abstraction. When the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere work harmoniously, then we become beings capable of complexity and nuance, worthy of our miraculous technological tools.
On the other hand, when the hemispheres are split—or when the left hemisphere dominates the right—the result is schizophrenia and alienation. We just need to observe smartphone addiction and its attendant rash of depression and suicide, to see the dangers of a ‘left hemisphere’ hegemony. The isolated left hemisphere is unable to perceive depth; it is about reduction and control of information. The remedy is to submit the rational to the service of higher meaning. We need both of sides of consciousness—the reasonable and the magical, the literal and the metaphorical, the material and the metaphysical—working together simultaneously.
Anti-rivalry can be likened to meditation, which undoes the matrix of our fabricated, conditioned world. The ‘doing of not doing’ — the Taoist way of saying anti-rivalry — is the artful taming of our impulsive aggression. Anybody who has actually practiced real meditation knows how hard this is: non-activity (or anti-rivalry) turns out to be of the most rigorous activity of all. Meditation is no mere technique of mindful concentration, but a way to befriend, rather than terrorise ourselves and others. Anti-rivalrous modes—like meditation and prayer—do not exhaust but enlarge the spirit, and make a bridge to the soul.
Anti-rivalry is the activity of the meek warrior, who keeps his sword in his sheath—to borrow again from Jordan Peterson—except on the rarest occasion when violence is justified. To become anti-rivalrous is to discover the sovereign individual, and to be a sovereign individual means, at the very least, to create and inhabit a clean room of consciousness—to have gone beyond ideological possession, to use Petersonian language again. The poetic uniqueness of an individual is born in the anti-rivalrous, undivided space.
We don’t need to repress our rivalrous nature, but we can transcend and include it. The issue here is how to make peace and live with our divided, asymmetrical selves, not to flatten out or discard any aspect of ourselves. The end goal should be reconciliation. And reconciliation begins with what is most near. The monster under the bed, so to speak.
The world story
Today what matters most is learning how to be together in as authentic a manner as possible. The term interbeing, popularised by Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, can help his here. Interbeing is a better translation than interdependence because it implies thriving and creativity rather than co-dependence. Today, we definitely share a global and existential mode of inter-being in the 21st Century — especially with internet, where butterfly effect and synchronistic events abound. Everything we do matters because it is integrally wedded to everything else.
Anti-rivalry becomes more necessary over time, in this era of global existential threat and necessity. As Daniel Schmachtenberger and Jordan Hall have pointed out, the combination of rivalrous economics, empire mentality, and exponentially expanding technology can only lead to the destruction of the world—if only because of the amount of hydrogen bombs lying casually around. We now face a choice between anti-rivalry and the apocalypse—the logic of divide and conquer can no longer serve a 21st Century global village. Anti-rivalry has always been aspirational. It becomes necessary or desirable when the horror of the next world war has become simply impossible to contemplate.
It isn’t that rivalry is bad — positive competition brings people together in jubilation and ecstasy. And yet while it sometimes it can feel satisfying to crush your opponent, there is also something tawdry about it. The remedy is keeping in mind that anti-rivalry is the higher, sacred meaning of a game. In sports, the higher meaning is playing the best possible game—even if the lower meaning is team rivalry and winning. Consider South Africa, where the communal joy of Rugby matches contributed to the end segregation.
A good question might be: how do we retain the sacred aspect of a game. Furthermore, how to find the spirit and discipline of a good sports game — which involves small teams engaged in superlative teamwork — and apply that spirit to real existential problems? How do we make the difficult problems of the world as urgent as a world cup match?
It seems to me we need a ‘world story’ to replace the a ‘cold war story’—and this story must be animated by an anti-rivalrous spirit. (Jordan Peterson can be criticised for continuing to propagate this polarising story to a certain extent, despite the great work he has done). A new world story would have to tap into the primordial ‘small is beautiful’ power of tribal belonging and yet be more universal—not an easy story to write. But what ‘miracles’ could be found by mining the intangible spiritual power of anti-rivalrous resources?
The flattening of hierarchy, or the usual Marxist story, is not a good ‘world story’ for the 21st Century. It misconstrues the virtue of a good hierarchy, which is not necessarily a power struggle between the ‘higher’ and ‘lower’, but a vertical space where the more competent can empower those hungry for development. This means rewarding authenticity, skill, and collaboration rather than posture, noise, and entitlement. In a dynamic space of learning, where skills are shared not hoarded, people have some room to grow. But without this vertical dimension, there is no learning, or horizontal movement forward.
The libertarian story of individual conquest and heroism inspired by Ayn Rand novels is also obsolete, even if it has its appeal. Selfishness is not a virtue, altruism and generosity are. The anti-rival vision lifts the whole society up and pushes it forward at the same time. This means transcending the extreme capitalist model without falling into collectivist madness. When positive competition and prodigy are harnessed in the service of anti-rivalry, you have the marriage of the best aspects of both capitalism and communism—and a transcendence of both. A genuinely middle way.
While we may be able to destroy human life through atomic rivalry, the sun continues to shine in any case. Sunlight is anti-rival by nature. It just shines — neither for nor against anything. In the same way, conscious language, used properly, is like sunlight — it clarifies rather than reifies.
Logos, or truth speech, destroys machine-like thinking. Of course words and sunlight can be used in the service of rivalry, such as engaging in propaganda, ideological war, or nuclear build up. However, true words (logos) cannot be exhausted or destroyed as long as we are able to speak to each other. The sun will continue to shine as long we can see it.
When Jesus said, ‘For where two or three are gathered together unto My name, there am I in their midst’ this may be one of the most beautiful statements of anti-rivalrous spirit every expressed. The answer lies therein. In other words, when people gather in good faith and in the name of a higher principle, the anti-rivalrous soul is birthed.
Note: I have borrowed and remixed liberally from the ideas of Jordan Hall (formerly known as Jordan Greenhall), Jordan Peterson, and Daniel Schmachtenberger — and a few others. Thanks to Jordan Hall and Stephen Lewis for proofreading.
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Thanks Stephen Lewis for the edits