Saturday, March 2, 2024
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Getting Back to Playing With One Another


Some years ago, an older relative got remarried. Her first marriage, a stormy one by all accounts, had lasted decades, producing two children. The divorce had seemed inevitable to her loved ones and her second marriage to a more even-keeled man seemed a good idea. One evening over drinks, however, she confessed to me that she fought with her new husband almost as much as her former. “I divorced the first man because of the fighting. Now I’m having the same fights with my second husband. If I’d known that I was the problem I would have never gotten divorced in the first place.”

Psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler was among the first to point out this marital phenomenon, asserting that a person filing for divorce is often unconsciously trying to rid themselves of their “own inner conflict” by fighting “with great energy against (their) partner, on whom the conflict as been projected.” His conclusion, which mirrors my older relative’s experience, is that these people will almost certainly find another spouse in order to continue their quarrel.

As sad and tragic as her confession was to me, the essential truth of it has become one of the cornerstones of my relationship with my wife. We fight, as all couples do, but in the aftermath of every spat, sometimes right in the midst of it, I ask myself, “Am I the problem here?” And more often than not, I see that I am, at least in part, and that’s the part I have the best chance of controlling. This isn’t to say that I’m in the wrong or that I’m not making excellent points, but that the strong emotion at the center is my an inner conflict, a sense of sadness or fear or despair that has nothing to do with my wife.

Last year, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country. “Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately half of US adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. Disconnection fundamentally affects our mental, physical, and societal health. In fact, loneliness and isolation increase the risk for individuals to develop mental health challenges in their lives, and lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking daily.” Surveys find that 27 percent of us report being estranged from a family member — that’s 67 million of us in the US alone whose conflicts with relatives are so extreme that they’ve ended the relationship. I have no doubt that some of that estrangement is valid, but I’m also quite certain that much of it, if not most, comes down to unresolved inner conflicts.

Our news is full of stories about our political divides, gun massacres, homelessness, racism, and sexism. Existentialist philosopher and author Jean-Paul Sartre, in his play No Exit, penned the line, “Hell is other people.” Abstracted from its context, the sentiment appears to be one of a kind with the misanthropic writings of the most (tragically) influential philosophers of the modern era, Thomas Hobbes, who starts from the premise that humans are essentially evil and that without the control and order provided by institutions like government, church and schools, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Too many of us have adopted some version of the “hell is other people” perspective. We see it in the cynicism, even nihilism, with which so many approach the prospect of communal life. We see it in the resignation, isolation, self-destruction, and alienation experienced by broad swaths of society. 

Yet, when we look more deeply, we see that Hobbes’ entire philosophy, and therefore the fruit of Hobbesianism, is based on a “state of nature” that has never existed. It’s a thought experiment that ignores the actual practices of humankind. Indeed, throughout most of human existence, our species has practiced a kind of communal collaboration that historian and author Yuval Noah Harari argues (in his book Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind) is our single most significant adaptive trait. Rutger Bregman makes a similar assertion in his book Humankind in which he systematically dismantles the weak science behind the modern “proofs” used to support the Hobbesian point of view. And a closer reading of Sartre finds that the real meaning behind his famous and abused line is that “hell is other people” only if our relationships with them are bad.

Bregman writes “If we believe most people can’t be trusted, that’s how we’ll treat each other, to everyone’s detriment. Few ideas have as much power to shape the world as our view of other people. Because ultimately, you get what you expect to get. If we want to tackle the greatest challenges of our times — from the climate crisis to our growing distrust of one another — then I think the place we need to start is our view of human nature.”

The great tragedy of our current era, it seems to me, and the nub of our loneliness, division, and misanthropy is that we have been taught (by capitalism, by colonialism, by racism, by fascism, by if-it-bleeds-it-lead journalism) is to distrust one another. And like with any vicious cycle, the more completely we learn these lessons, the more we hide away from one another, the more we are convinced that all of our problems come from outside ourselves.

Distrust is what makes our problems seem unsolvable. Distrust is what makes us throw up our hands over the climate, homelessness, and racism. And distrust, I believe, stands at the heart of our loneliness crisis. Humans have evolved to thrive by trusting one another, but our modern world is built upon the dubious mental experiments of Thomas Hobbes and his ilk who view conflict as our greatest flaw when, in fact, it is, when we put relationships first, our greatest glory.

At any given moment in a play-based preschool classroom, conflict is emerging. The Hobbsian approach is for the adults to place their authoritarian thumb on the scales, to take control, and to dictate solutions. Yet, when we put relationships first we understand that the goal is not to efficiently end the conflict, but rather to support the children in resolving their conflicts in ways that preserve and strengthen their relationships with one another. And this usually means acknowledging the thing that my older relative only learned after divorce and remarriage: at least part of the problem is me. As adults, our primary responsibility is safety (which is why we stop any violence), but beyond that these conflicts are the children’s to resolve. When we can free ourselves from Hobbesian distrust and step back, what we find is that even very young children are capable of resolving their own conflicts, often in ways that surprise us, motivated by the urge to get back to playing with one another.

And isn’t that our highest goal as a species: getting back to playing with one another?

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