Not since the Long March had Mao Tse-Tung’s Communists faced such a threat.
In 1937, in the midst of a civil war between the Communist and Nationalist parties, Japan invaded China.
Fearing for their survival, Communist leaders advocated a retreat to their rural base.
“Leave it to the Nationalists to fight the Japanese. Let them run themselves ragged while we gather strength.”
To sit out of this fight would be to grow weak while his enemies sharpened their swords in combat.
Mao saw that the Japanese could not possibly hope to hold all of China. They would eventually leave and, once they were gone, the fight with the Nationalists would reopen.
History would prove Mao correct. After the Japanese retreated from the mainland, the battle-hardened Communists soundly defeated the Nationalists.
When, years later, a Japanese visitor attempted to apologize for his nation’s invasion of China, Mao interrupted.
“Should I not thank you instead?”
Without a worthy opponent, he explained, a man or group cannot grow stronger.*
Sticky Identities Make Passive Adults
We have mistakenly come to the belief that it is a virtue not to have any enemies.
Children don’t have this issue. They form in-groups and out-groups, knowing that the surest way to shape themselves is to define what they are not. Their dramas are filled with alliances, pacts, prized goals, and, of course, bitter rivalries.
There is a fluidity with which the child decides, day to day, which role to take on.
At some point in our development we lose this. The mature identity is a persistent identity. We’ve battled through the crises of adolescence to discover our true nature. Maybe we take ourselves a little too seriously. But, pay no mind, it’s a small price to pay for knowing who we are!
We trade the fluidity of childhood for a rigid adult identity. And, like a gambler who goes all-in on a single hand, we cannot afford to lose.
This is how conflict becomes deadly.
An attack on our new adult identity is an attack on our permanent selves. No more skinned knees and weepy reconciliations. The stakes are too high. We’ve learned how to hold a goddamn grudge.
In this world of adults—of all warfare great and small—some of us come to the belief that a good life is one with minimal conflict.
But here we run into problems.
To avoid opposition is to avoid acting meaningfully at all. Or, at least, to have acted with such timidity that your interests were never really taken into account. And to pursue agreeableness at all costs is to surrender the world to those who aren’t afraid of a good scrap.
So, how do we, the faint of heart, reclaim the right to pick a fight?
In Defense of Being Disagreeable
Do you have it in you to live disagreeably?
Listen: if there are billions of people on this planet and each is right to pursue their own goals, then what are the chances that you are living a meaningful life and not coming into conflict with some number of them?
Reasonable enough, yes?
But I see that you are still uncomfortable—fine—there’s still another point to made:
You are not the same as your interests.
You are not your goals. You are not your beliefs. You are not your identity.
You are the freedom that permits you to assemble a life out of these components.
Your enemies aren’t opposed to your existence; they simply have goals that conflict with yours.
Truth is, there are few categories of conflict where we are persecuted simply for existing—these we file under a big red folder marked “Clearly Evil”.
Does your office arch-enemy really hate you personally or does he simply see your competence as a threat to his job?
Is the mother-in-law that undercuts you at every turn convinced you are essentially a bad person or is she simply unable to reconcile herself to a diminished role in her son’s life?
There is a real difference here. In so far as your interests can be brought in line with theirs then you have no cause for conflict. Having an enemy doesn’t have the moral weight you think it has. It’s more of a coordination issue than anything else.
Sure, sometimes we lose the plot and feel that people are fundamentally opposed to us. But, most times, life just isn’t that exciting.
Accepting this distinction will allow you to confidently enter into competition with others. To fight fiercely but without hatred. To be less susceptible to overstepping, committing moral lapses, or missing opportunities to nullify your enemies by making them your friends.
In many ways we have never left the childhood playground with its faction and fracas. Truth be told, if you can think back to that time, did your childhood battles really seem as frivolous and inconsequential as I described? No. They were life or death.
It always seems like life or death.
It is only by taking the long view and imagining ourselves untethered from our present identity-interests that we can acknowledge how collaborative many of our conflicts are. How many of our competitions aren’t the mortal, morally-fraught struggles (“He’s out to get me. She’s pure evil.”) that we imagine but just run-of-the-mill competition.
Then we can come to this truth:
Love your rivals.
Choose them wisely.
They, maybe more than your friends, are responsible for your growth.
* Thanks to Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power for the anecdote on Mao Tse-Tung.