The Struggle Between Life and Death

An earlier post in this blog suggests that we can talk about life and death as large abstractions; but for personal purposes, one tends to experience life and death, not as gigantic monoliths staring at each other across a no-man’s-land, but rather as wrestlers or sporting teams, forever grappling and struggling for a slightly stronger hold or another inch of turf.  (Of course, the intention here is not that life and death are gods or other beings, nor do they necessarily reflect the workings of any divinity or supernatural force.  It is simply convenient to speak as though they had personalities and objectives of their own.)

Our experience of this conflict between life and death comes down to countless day-to-day confrontations among people, animals, other living things, and inanimate forces and objects.  This post offers a few observations about those confrontations.

There is a saying:  “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”  The idea seems to be that losing a fight tends to make a person faster, more powerful, more motivated, or otherwise better prepared to win next time.  There is some truth to this notion.  But often it is simply false:  you may come away intimidated or crippled.  Being a loser often brings real impairments.  In other words, losses in the struggle between life and death can have real and permanent consequences.

There is another saying:  “Pick your battles.”  The concept here is that you conserve your strength, plan your strategy, and then strike when you are positioned to win.  It is a nice idea in theory, but it tends not to work out in practice.  For one thing, the people who adopt this approach tend to be cautious.  The battles they pick are not the ones where they have a 51% chance, or even a 60% chance, of winning.  They tend to hold out for the ones where they have a 95%-plus likelihood of coming out on top.  This means they all flock together on the bandwagon when they manage to find a cause that has been officially approved as a matter of the Good Guys vs. the Bad Guys – they all want to get their turn to land a few blows on the target of their collective ire, without much actual personal risk.  The rest of the time, unfortunately, they tend to facilitate evil rather than confront it.

Among those who say, “Pick your battles,” what we usually see is not usually a matter of courageous individuals carefully building their strength in preparation for a masterful strike that will effect significant change.  The people with courage tend to be taking action when the time is ripe.  What we see, among those who claim to pick their battles, tends to be individuals who are simply hiding behind the excuse that they are waiting for the right time to make their move.  For the most part, the only move they will be making is a promotion, once they have convinced the big shots that they are reliably similar to the person they are replacing.

Often, conflict operates as follows:  You are walking down the road.  Here comes the bully, walking toward you.  The bully says, Join me or I’ll thrash you.  You were not particularly interested in fighting at that moment.  You do not stand to gain much from fighting the bully.  It is easier to join him and look for a better moment to free yourself.  So you turn around and follow the bully.  What the bully knows – what you do not realize – is that, once you surrender to him, you will probably continue to defer to him, especially if he continues to offer a tolerable situation.  So the bully continues down the road, and confronts another individual, and another, and another.  Altogether, the bully encounters a hundred people, one at a time.  Each of them is just like you.  Each time the person looks at the bully – and, as his followers grow, at the collection of people behind him – and concludes that fighting makes no sense.  So each person follows the bully.  And now he is the leader of a force, and anyone who dares to oppose him gets mauled by a pack.  It may seem that many of these individuals, following him, would be prepared to flake off and turn against him in the event of misfortune.  Sometimes that does happen.  But what often happens is that some particularly weak individuals take shelter in his strength.  These people are motivated to root out dissension among his followers, so as to preserve the bully’s organization and to enhance their own standing within it.  Others, who initially would have been able to stand against him, or at least to flee when the opportunity arises, instead become preoccupied with their position within his operation.  He has a private army, or something like it, and it develops an internal structure and logic.

That is how conflict operates in general.  There is a version of it to be found within the behavior of life itself.  Life is a kind of bully.  As the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success.  In pursuit of its own project, life rewards those who prove most adept at converting opportunities and resources into personal advantage.  The path of least resistance tends to entail going along with life, focusing on growing and becoming stronger.  As you progress from youth to maturity, you are steadily less likely to question this.  It becomes second nature.

Life in general (and the organizations of various bullies and tyrants) tends toward hierarchical arrangements.  Like the mountain of success, the list of successful climbers is pyramid-shaped because those who reach its higher levels tend to offer other climbers a stark choice:  support my climb, or I will shove you over a cliff.  At the higher levels, not many climbers are left, and those who do survive tend to be the most ruthless in garnering ever more power to themselves – for their own enjoyment, and also to prevent any competitors from getting it.  This is very different from death, where there is room for everyone.

The analogy of sports teams might thus be narrowed to the tug of war, where one team grabs one end of a rope, and another team grabs the other end, and they try to pull each other across a dividing line.  But in the case of life vs. death, it is an odd kind of tug-of-war, where everyone starts out on life’s side, but ultimately everyone ends up on death’s side.  There is only so much space on life’s end of the rope, so life is forever throwing people off the team.  Life runs an elite organization, ruthlessly picking and choosing, discarding the weak ones as soon as a stronger one comes along.  Even if you made the cut this year, perhaps next year you won’t.

The struggle between life and death tends to leave people in a difficult position.  There are the strong and, on the opposite extreme, there are the dead.  Between those extremes lies the vast bulk of humanity, neither supreme nor expired.  For most people, the conflict between life and death entails an ongoing struggle – sometimes strenuous, sometimes not – to stay alive and to try to make things a bit better for oneself, without attracting hostile attention from dominant individuals.  This state of affairs leads people to engage in certain protective behaviors, discussed in a separate post.

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