Time Exposure– montage 4

by Antone P. Braga

The tenant intended to move and gave notice to the landlady. My friend the landlady, stood on legal ground and could not understand why I winced when I heard her justify what seemed only right and to her advantage. “The tenant can come to me and ask for the security deposit, and I don’t have to voluntarily give it back even if there is no damage. It will be up to the her to prove I should pay back the deposit. The longer I hang onto it, the better for me.” She was right, at least in that regard. The tenant would have to wrestle the deposit away and may even lose interest if it became difficult enough—a winning situation for the landlady and one more contribution to that all too common philosophy governed by self-interest in the immediate—expediency.

“When virtue is lost, benevolence appears, when benevolence is lost right conduct appears, when right conduct is lost, expedience appears. Expediency is the mere shadow of right and truth; it is the beginning of disorder.” —LAO TZU

In sports, politics and card games we are taught to capitalize on the opponent’s weakness. The object is to win and the opponent to lose. However, this indoctrination causes an assumed righteous attitude with a great downside as it pervades our thinking in nearly all human interaction. Expediency rules over a society at its own throat. We are headed for disaster and are no better off for defeating others than the reverse which will come to pass. The more we conquer the more we divide, and the more we teach the law of putting the other person down in order to lift ourselves up. The “loser” of course then can’t wait to reciprocate—to reverse roles and carry the message forward to the next loser, and so on. . .

Many years ago our family purchased a game called Beach Paddle-Ball. It didn’t come with instructions and we were one of the first on the beach trying to create our interpretation of the game. It was simple enough—two paddles and a ball. My first inclination was to hit the ball in an upwards motion towards the other player so that even if I hit the ball off course, the other player had enough time to get positioned to hit the ball back in the same way. The object became the cooperative effort of keeping the ball in the air—neither player trying to defeat the other. The pleasure of the game came in the play and not in the win or the defeat. In all the years since, I have never seen the game played that way. I am sure there are others who also saw the value and enjoyment of the cooperative version of the game. I just never ran into them and I spent a lot of summers on the sand. What I do see is the philosophy of winning. The ball is usually hit as a line drive at the other player to handle or miss—sort of an attack and response cycle until one player appears superior and the other inferior. It is much the same as tennis, but with the players positioned about ten feet apart and the ball directed at each player. Play is at short range so there is little more than reaction time. There is nothing wrong with competitive sport or any other finite game. However, there is something wrong with carrying that thinking into our general interaction and life-style. It is a mirror of our bent for expediency.

A friend of mine said, “I would rather have a Harvard professor on my side anytime than a public defender.” His comment had to do with the inequity of the “haves” affording the best attorneys while the “have nots” have less than expert counsel. I replied, “Not always. Let me show you something from an insurance claims manual. It was written with the counsel of a Harvard professor who counselled many large insurance companies as well as many other major industries in the art of ‘winning’ in dealings with the public.” After reading some passages he said, “That can’t be right.” This coming from someone not sophisticated in insurance matters, but nonetheless he saw the obvious—the attitude is clearly to “win,” not to find common ground. It is also clear the company feels their behavior is fair and just, and of course legal. The point is even the best counsel can be led astray by the pervasive winning philosophy. This beguiling policy is narrowly focused on short term self-interest and ignores a basic consideration: the view from the other side—a rather large oversight that can and will come back to deliver retribution.

The broader long range winning philosophy finds common ground and takes the enlightened needs of both sides into account as well as compromise in its approach to reaching the satisfaction of both sides. That is not to say we homogenize our interests or lose sight of us and them. As is the case many times, the choice is not between one or the other. It is a choice to broaden our self-interest to see the benefit of not defeating the other side. In order to arrive at a meaningful agreement each side has its own self-interest to satisfy, and neither side is interested in defeat (please see Adjust).

We could break apart if we don’t make an adjustment in our collective demeanor. That is the basic premise offered by Pete Hamill in a national magazine article, “End Game.” I could not agree more, though I do have a basic disagreement with his prescription of doing away with “us and them” behavior. We can never trust our defenses to the ideal that we all presumedly abide by the same ideal, no one can afford that vulnerability. What we can do is expand beyond self-interest as our only focus, to a new station where self-interest is held in just as high regard, but with one small additional step: an eye for understanding the enlightened needs of both sides—us and them, which after all is in our own best interest—long term meaningful relations. In effect we are us and them, with reservations.