Soy un perdador. I’m a loser, Baby, so why don’t you kill me? – Beck
The idea that life is a contest in which it is the natural goal of each individual to distinguish him or herself as a “winner” has been at the core of neurotic Western values since the heyday of the Roman Empire. The imagined superiority of the individual over his peers in some specialized discipline or another is the promoted aspiration from which we are taught to seek our sense of worth and purpose. With this subconscious drive informing our every decision, those with the pre-existing privilege of power, wealth or influence attempt to exert this “superiority” over large swaths of the planet while those of more humble backgrounds usually aspire to a more local celebrity. Since this attitude is the baseline from which all of us in Western culture operate, we willingly elevate some of the most despotic people to positions of honor and influence precisely because of our fucked up definition of what constitutes honorable behavior.
Maybe this is just due to the fact that I grew up in the 1980s, but it seems that this vague but persistent promotion of personal victory just for the sake of it was comically apparent in the pop culture of that particular decade. Sports movies with the underlying cliched theme of “underdog defeats formidable rival” were all the rage and their accompanying soundtrack music encouraged listeners to “rise up”, “go for the glory”, “reach for the top”, “go for the gold” and “defy the odds” in order to…what? They never really specified how exactly one should define this elusive “glory” other than implying that it has something to do with winning — preferably in as public a way as possible. How else can we possibly explain to future generations the inexplicable popularity of movies about arm wrestling and bands like Survivor other than to acquiesce to the fact that in the eighties, we all thought that a championship trophy was the ultimate symbol of someone’s worth?
Since the turn of the millennium, two public figures have done more to advance the notion of “winning” at all costs than any others I can call to mind. One of them lost his gig on Two and A Half Men over his public arrogance. The other got elected to the presidency of the United States. Drugs had much to do with the resulting downfall of the former individual. The latter is a flawless illustration of the ignorance inherent in such a value system as it becomes clearer by the day that this attitude in its most egregious form is more potentially dangerous than the Black Death. In the 14th Century, the bubonic plague laid claim to about one third of the European population. But what we are facing today as the result of the glorification of narcissism quite literally has the potential to eradicate the species. Remind me again why this is considered “winning”?
The root of the problem lies in our erroneous conception of individuality. Despite comparatively recent and extensively documented discoveries in the realm of physics that utterly demolish the notion of independent islands of cohesive and self-regulated matter, as a culture we have chosen to ignore the implications of these findings that weaken our sense of independence. Egoism is so hard-wired into our psyches that we are capable of ignoring direct evidence that calls our sense of self into question. And it’s remarkably easy to defend such willful ignorance when everyone else harbors the same point of view. “I’m just not interested in science. It’s all so boring to me.” Very rarely does anyone feel motivated to question such a stubbornly myopic mindset because most of us feel exactly the same way, even if some of us have styles of explaining it that sound loftier in their expression.
Our very lives depend on blowing this suicidal philosophy right out of the water. And the only way to do that is to awaken people to reality as it is. If the interdependent and impermanent nature of all phenomena were truly understood, it would become apparent that there is literally no such thing as “winning”. The very word implies an imagined independence of every organism that exists and the ability of each to distinguish itself as superior through sheer force of will. But an organism cannot possibly exist independently and our wills are anything but individual. They are an amalgam of aspirations and values adopted from the cultures we inhabit. They are a mass hallucination induced by the dispensation of the idea that every individual is in complete control of his or her own destiny. They are the direct result of the anxiety that arises from ego.
Every atom — every proton of every atom — owes its existence to every other atom in the Universe. The reason matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed is because the removal of one single atom from the whole would cause it to collapse into nothingness. The “stuff” that currently coalesces as your physical body has always existed in one form or another and it will continue to exist long after you’re dead. The grand process that is the Universe persists because it is constantly in flux. If just one molecule decided to sit out the next dance, all movement across the 13.8 billion light year wide dance floor would cease, leaving not even an errant party streamer as evidence of what once had been.
So why can’t we try to behave more like our constituent molecules and trust in the fact that the law of interdependence is exactly what allows us to be, to think and to live? If our collective subconscious view evolved into one that takes as a given the necessity of your existence to support my own, how could we possibly continue to feel motivated to delight in the perceived “defeat” of others or in our own personal “victories” over them? The very idea would strike us as the outright nonsense that it is and our struggles would invariably be resolved through collaborative and cooperative solutions that don’t seek to elevate any party over the other.
And the only reason that last sentence just struck you as impossibly idealistic is because you, like most of us, find the idea of letting go of your own perceived preciousness as distasteful a proposition as can possibly be raised. Either that, or you just have a really unhealthy aversion to Hillary Clinton and Ashton Kutcher.