Babies are neither born innocent creatures nor sinful ones, but both, or perhaps neither. Any honest parent will agree upon observing their child go from hugging and kissing a sibling to slapping them unprovoked in seconds. Certainly by the age of two children are both sweet little angels and skillful manipulators, hence the “terrible twos.” It’s surprising to me that such romantic notions still exist about children’s innocence since this view can be so easily removed by babysitting a couple toddlers for a few hours.
Kids’ board games often emphasize the enjoyment found in other people’s misery. Take the game Sorry! in which one pretends to be sorry when landing on an opponent’s piece, thus sending it back to the start and gaining a competitive advantage. Sorry! encapsulates a universal human experience—delight in causing another misery coupled with pretending to not feel such delight. This experience is so common that the apology in the game of Sorry! is obvious in its insincerity to the point of sarcasm. It’s a “sorry! (ha ha)” that recognizes one’s gain at another’s loss.
Another common human experience is to delight in causing others misery and then feeling guilt in response to one’s delight. Some sensitive modern kids feel bad when playing Sorry! with their parents or friends. They will first say “sorry” in the sarcastic way, but then quickly switch to a more sincere-sounding “sorry” and an explanation of how it is “only a game” or “you’ll probably win next time,” thus all players will eventually get to feel the pleasure of causing others’ pain!
Some parents and teachers also attempt to move away from such competitive zero-sum games that emphasize joy in winning at the expense of another’s agony of defeat. One commonly criticized way of doing so is to keep the rules of game the same, say softball, but to reward all participants for something. For instance a poorly behaved player with low skills may receive an award for “most improved.” As a middle-schooler I was an uncoordinated softball player and distinctly remember winning an award at the end of the season for “most bubble gum chewed.” I’m not sure which is worse—simply being an uncoordinated loser, or being singled out from all players on the team for one’s quantity of gum-chewing…even more so because my friend won the award for “best bubble blower”—I wasn’t even good enough at blowing bubbles with my gum, something that we frequently competed over.
No doubt the adult coaches found themselves in a similar dilemma as the sensitive child playing Sorry! with their parents. On the one hand I was a terrible player (in part due to a rapid growth spurt), was mostly made fun of and bullied by the other kids, and had major authority issues to boot, so I spent most of my time chewing the gum that was always available when we played. But on the other hand I was a likeable enough kid and the adults wanted to be nice and supportive so that all the kids would thrive. The attempt to be nice and focus on something positive in each player was in conflict with the irritation the adults no doubt felt with me and the fact that I was by far the worst player on the team. I can imagine that they took pleasure in presenting me with their facetious award for “most bubble gum chewed” in a similar way that someone feels pleasure when saying “sorry” in the board game of the same name. But since it was technically an “award,” they could assuage their guilt in the pleasure they took in giving me the insulting award.
Rewarding all kids for participating and saying things like “everyone’s a winner” is frequently cited as causing narcissism and inflated self-concept in children. I certainly was not fooled into thinking I was a great softball player or a valuable member of the team upon receiving my award for gum consumption. However, I do remember feeling surprised by receiving something, some acknowledgement of my existence from adults, even if it was a joke at my expense. While I sucked at sports and social interaction, at least I was good at gum chewing! At the time it was difficult for me to see anything positive about myself at all besides a talent in math, which mostly got me made fun of and beat up. The fact that some adults were willing to see something positive about me—even if faked—was genuinely helpful.
On the one hand, competitive zero-sum games like Sorry! or even softball encourage taking delight in causing misery, but on the other hand they allow this universal human experience a safe and relatively harmless outlet. Delight in causing harm to others is the basis for what makes someone a psychopath, but it’s a matter of “to what extent.” If you’ve read Beyond Growth in the past, for many months I was negatively fascinated (i.e. disgusted and compelled) with psychopaths and narcissists and wrote numerous articles about this topic. It is obvious in hindsight that this repetition compulsion was due to having internalized abuse from some young psychopaths/narcissists in my own past combined with not dealing with my own psychopath or narcissist within.
Core Transformation has been the most helpful technique I’ve encountered in not only getting to know such inner parts of my experience, but also actually transforming them. It’s not good enough in my opinion to simply get to know parts of me that delight in causing harm, for I absolutely do not want to abuse others in the way I was abused. But it is also not enough to simply call others psychopaths and narcissists and not recognize the pleasure I experience in having power over or harming others. Just as saying “I’m not a racist but…” is nearly always a lie, so in the same way is saying “so-and-so is a psychopath” and not acknowledging one’s own pleasure in another’s pain. For example, I and many others have taken pleasure in seeing James Arthur Ray convicted of homicide. Some have gone further and and secretly (or not so secretly) taken pleasure in imagining him to be subject to the abuse of prison rape (as many comments online have joked about). We should be careful not to confuse justice with vengeance.
Recently I’ve begun exploring more parts of myself with Core Transformation that delight in the misery of others. It’s a dark and disturbing thing to look at, very difficult to face within myself as I’ve always had an identity of being a “good person.” One part of me had something like the following desires (each one more important than the previous):
- to control others
- to make or force people to do what I want
- to have all my desires fulfilled
Obviously going about it in this order is a problem for multiple reasons. One is the harm involved in controlling and forcing others to do what I want, which even if that worked wouldn’t necessarily fulfill all my desires, and desires are endless thus fulfilling them isn’t such a good strategy for reaching peace. Much better is to just live from a state of being of Peace, and by doing so I don’t have to fulfill all my desires, controlling others doesn’t make sense and in fact compassion for others spontaneously arises (and sadness that I desired to control others).
Granted, I didn’t live out this part of me in a gross and harmful fashion like James Arthur Ray at his deadly sweat lodge. But even so, these dark desires are part of our human experience too—they do not only belong to those “other” people who are psychopaths and narcissists, racists and bigots. We are all these things to some extent (and yes, extent matters), so we can all do better by really diving deep into understanding the root causes of these experiences and desires, thus transforming the psychopath and narcissist within. Note too that the outcome “to have all my desires fulfilled” is a common theme both in personal development marketing and amongst narcissists!
So should we stop playing zero-sum games like Sorry! and softball? I don’t think so. Competitive games bring out what’s already there, the psychopathic anti-social aspects of ourselves. But it’s also true that competitive games have cooperative aspects, both within a team and even between opponents, bringing out the best of each player. It doesn’t hurt to also play some cooperative, non-zero-sum games too like painting, building something together, playing music, discussing literature or movies, etc. But these cooperative games can become competitive at times too as in music auditions. Ultimately if we are to be whole human beings, we must embrace all the aspects of ourselves and our shared humanity.
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