As I began writing this, I’d just returned from watching First Offspring play his soccer game. His team won, which was really great for them, because they played well this week, plus the last couple of games they’ve lost. Winning today was a good confidence boost for them. After all, as much as we all try to emphasise that the game should be fun, whether you win or lose, it does feel good to win. And I enjoy going to watch their team play, too. As they’re still young, the halves are only 20 minutes, so it’s an ideal period of time to stand around — the whole thing is over within an hour.
If I’m on my own with nobody to talk to, I also do a good bit of thinking while I’m watching, too. I plan out short stories in my head, or think about articles I might pitch, and sometimes about blog posts. While First Offspring’s team was recently playing a team with a particularly vocal and… let’s say ‘passionate’ parent base, I found myself thinking about the way we like to take sides. Initially, I was thinking about this in terms of sports. People often choose a team to support, and will defend and commit to that team, through thick and thin. Criticism of the team is seen as a sign of disloyalty, at least to those who support other teams. We’re often happy when a decision goes ‘our way’ but livid when the umpire decides in favour of the other team. We want our team to be good sports, but we don’t always extend that expectation to our own behaviour.
Obviously when it comes to watching one’s own offspring, one is inclined to be biased towards their own child’s team, and indeed, their own child. I’ll certainly call First Offspring out for not paying attention, or being too rough (although to his credit, he’s not really like that anyway) but I’m also the first to protest if someone gives him a bit of a push. I guess that’s to be expected.
A few weeks ago, I had to have words to First Offspring after the game, as one of the parents (from our team) said that he’d heard First Offspring calling their opponents names. He wasn’t swearing, and the name was fairly inoffensive — amusing, even — but still, it was an opportunity to explain that it’s supposed to be fun. “You know, the children on the other team… they’re just like you,” I told him. “They go to a different school and they play for a different team, but you’re more similar than you are different. I’ll bet some of them even have the same interests as you.”
Jumping up to support your team is only to be expected, but we extend this duality, this ‘us versus them’ ideology, far beyond the playing field. We build up our identity based on what we are, and what we’re not. It helps us to decide whether we’re going to want to spend time with people, whether we’ll be friends or simply acquaintances.
I suppose this is a human thing. We’ve evolved to see self and other, to identify with those we think are similar to us, and who might have the same interests at heart. That way, we could be more certain that they’d be willing to fight in our corner, when the time came. Does that kind of parochialism still have to apply nowadays, though, given the way we interact with so many different people on any given day, some of whom are far beyond our immediate ‘tribe’?
The ‘us versus them’ mentality can extend to the politics we believe in, even to the kinds of books or films we read, or the type of parents we aspire to be. Are we really so insecure that we need to offset our own choices about what we think in terms of being better than someone else? Because that’s what it really comes down to. If it were just a dichotomy, two different sides and two different ways of thinking, it wouldn’t be so destructive, but the ‘us versus them’ philosophy doesn’t work that way. It works by elevating one group or belief above another.
Often the method to try to get around this is to highlight the similarities between groups, to show that we’re not so different from each other. It’s a way of extending our ‘us’. That’s certainly what I tried to do with First Offspring, when asking him to think about how the other children he played against were just children like him. And it worked. The next week, I saw him say something to one of the other boys on the field, and the other child smiled and patted him on the back. This was a game when First Offspring’s team was losing, quite badly, so I asked him later what he’d said. “I said to him, ‘you guys are doing really well!’ and he smiled and said, ‘thanks, you’re doing well, too!'” I felt really happy for him, that he’d managed to make a connection… and I guess I felt a little proud, too. It’s not always easy to be pleasant to others, when they’re winning and you’re losing.
Perhaps, though, in terms of a real emotional evolution, we need to think less about making our ‘us’ circle bigger, less about finding the similarities, and consider more that we can, in fact, be very different, and still be valuable human beings. That might be truly transcendent, because it would mean that we would have found a way to embrace difference on its own terms. If we were to do this, we might be able to see the worth of other beings — human or otherwise — less in terms of what we have in common and more in terms of what they offer, in and of themselves.
But that’s also far more difficult. It requires us to let go of what we might see as the best or the most important, and place intrinsic value on the other, on the ‘them’. Is that something that most people are capable of doing, or willing to do? I’m not sure First Offspring is ready for that. I’m not sure I am. I suppose for now, I’ll settle for empathy with others… and given the kinds of violent opposition people seem to have over politics, religion, or sport, even that seems hard enough to achieve.