Because we were friends and sometimes loved each other,
perhaps to add one more tie
to the many that already bound us,
we decided to play games of the mind.
We set up a board between us:
equally divided into pieces, values,
and possible moves.
We learned the rules, we swore to respect them,
and the match began.
We’ve been sitting here for centuries, meditating
how to deal the one last blow that will finally
annihilate the other one forever.
(25 May 1925 – 7 August 1974)
Mexican poet and author
While on one of many trips to Mississippi last year, my father was helping care for his mother-in-law, a retired teacher, and entertained himself by browsing her bookshelves. He found the above poem in an old textbook, thought I’d like it, and called me up so he could read it over the phone. We talked about the poem and about the themes it brought up, and it was a pretty good conversation, considering that we aren’t always on pleasant terms with one another.
Which, in a way, falls right in line with the poem.
The above was originally posted on Friday, April 17, 2009, and received the most traffic of any other post on my old blog: thousands of visitors from all over the world, yet few comments.
Then, two years later, a young man asked questions–probably as a result of a homework assignment–and I responded with this post:
A recent visitor named Joel asked, “(Y)ou mention that this poem is a representative of both humanity and history. Care to explain your point of view?”
(T)hat’s a condensed way of saying this, I suppose: the cliched wish for world peace is naive, unrealistic, and never gonna happen, because it doesn’t take into account human nature. There will always be conflict. There will always be war, even if it’s just between individuals.
Writers and readers, television and movie viewers, all know that stories where everyone gets along, no one makes mistakes or misjudgments, and nothing goes wrong, are boring and amateurish. For me, the most interesting conflicts are between respected rivals, or related rivals, because one never knows what they will do: will they help their antagonist, or thwart him?
“Peace” is like “love”–one of those words we say, and we think everyone knows exactly what we mean, and yet everyone has his or her own definition for it. So, we talk, but we don’t really communicate. We educate ourselves, but we don’t necessarily learn.
Even the most open-minded (allegedly) of us has prejudices and makes assumptions. Exhibit A: those who preach tolerance while trying to control or silence those who disagree i.e. homosexual activists, who attempt to shut down opposing viewpoints by throwing around such terms as “hate” and “homophobia”. And what about the call for consensus among scientists regarding global warming? Since when has science been about agreeing with one another? It’s about exploration, searching for answers, testing theories, asking questions.
An intriguing nonfiction read that is full of opposing viewpoints, different interpretations of evidence, as well as friendly and not-so-friendly debates, is a magazine I read cover-to-cover, Biblical Archeology Review. Part of what makes it so interesting are the differences, not necessarily the moments of consensus.
History repeats in cycles of violence and calm, repression and freedom, tyranny and democracy, because humanity is always fighting with itself: Who’s in charge? Who makes the rules? Who gets the most land? Who has the most power? Who wins, who loses, who flinches first?
This occurs among allied nations as well as between rivals.
As an American, I’m tired of my country being vilified — America’s not doing enough, America’s interfering; America spends too much, America isn’t spending enough — but everyone wants to take down the biggest guy on the block and become king of the neighborhood. Again, that’s just human nature.
On a smaller scale, we tend to fight the most with those who are closest to us. Why? Only what matters to us can make us angry; if it doesn’t matter, we don’t waste the energy.
Therefore, we push-pull with those who matter to us. My father and I probably could have had a perfectly reasonable, calm relationship if we didn’t love each other so much or disagree with each other so vehemently.