Wednesday, November 7, 2012

One on five: the fallacy of "Kill or be killed"

I think "pick-up basketball" is the technical term for a group of people (guys mostly) who get together to play free-for-all hoops, but I've found another term that I think works just as well, and may fit the bill even better: I call it "social experiment." That's essentially what the activity is, though none of the people under study ever participate knowingly. When we take to the court we're doing so for any number of reasons: to exercise; socialize; enact Jordan's "For the Love of the Game" clause; and among many others, my personal favorite: to compare, inch-to-inch, who's got the biggest dick. Such reasons are all scattered across the concrete and hardwood surfaces, visible to everyone running from this basket to that basket. But something else lies much deeper, woven invisibly into the fabric connecting all  participating players: a metaphor informing the learned nature of the human race. It's no doubt a social experiment, and an extraordinary one at that.

I've been playing basketball for sixteen years now, but it wasn't until this last year, while playing pick-up at a gym in New Jersey, that I became cognizant of the phenomenon. It had been present the whole time, to my mind's neglect, but I finally saw the pattern that emerged each time I laced up the sneaks. I'll explain through a brief situational narrative:

Game 1: It's my turn to partake in the five-on-five pick-up bout; I'm playing with four guys I don't really know that well. The game starts and I'm immediately glad to be on a team comprised of such willing passers, who know how to screen away and move effectively without the ball. If you didn't know any better you'd think we were out there playing in front of a coach who holds the key to each of our minutes. There is no place for Carmelo Anthony on this team: our united fluidity erases any chance for black-holing or ball-deading. The ball is moving constantly, always finding the open man. When one of us scores, we all score. Defensively we are tethered to one another, moving properly depending on where the ball shifts. Our defense feeds on our offense, and vice versa. To nobody's surprise we win that game easily.

Game 2: It's more of the same. The fluidity, the unison, the unselfishness. Oh, maybe once or twice someone will hoist up an ill-advised shot, or dribble for longer than is necessary, but it's nothing we can't handle as a fortified team. And so we win this game too, though by less than the game previously.

Game 3: You're waiting for the turn and here it is. During the third game something palpable shifts in our team chemistry. The seal of unity has been exposed, and unleashed from the envelope are all the things we silently swore against earlier: black-holing, ball-deading, putting up bad shot after bad shot. Suddenly someone's trying to dribble out of a double team rather than pass to the open teammate. When we don't have the ball in our hands we become listless spectators, refusing to move to the open spaces on the floor. Defensively we've really started slacking, taking plays off, not boxing out, not helping when help is required. The invisible tether is languishing. Miraculously we scrape by the other team and live to play another game.

Game 4: "Unity what? How do you spell it?" "U-N-I--" "Sorry, the only letters I'm familiar with are M-E," say each of the five Carmelos battling with one another for rights to whack off with the basketball in hand. It's a solo mission at this point, pathetically disguised as five-on-five basketball. Whoever gets the ball in the backcourt is going to throw it up on the offensive end, no matter if s/he's double or triple-teamed. A pass will occur if and only if it's in the form of a dazzling assist, and insofar as the credit falls upon the passer and not the scorer. We've all taken permanent leave from defense; the other team is scoring at will now. The outcome is predictable: our reign is through; we've been supplanted by a team that looks awfully similar to how we looked three games prior. It's kill or be killed and the basketball gods have seen enough to smite us from their court.


We're all familiar with "Kill or be killed." It's the maxim that's said to govern the animal kingdom with grim immutability: "If you ain't first you're last"--or worse, a bloody carcass, that which we humans might call "dinner." If the lion doesn't strike against the tiger, well then the tiger will happily do the honors. We've humanized the literal, turning it into a metaphorical guideline by which to live: strike at or be struck at; screw or be screwed. But in many cases we're actually fine with the literal, and we pop someone's head off or bomb an entire village to ode nature's most ruthless maxim.

Well I'll say it flat-out: it is the most outrageously stupid maxim we've come up with in however many thousands of years human beings have been coming up with rules for self-governance. (The 10 Commandments are in close contention for the top spot.) Let me clarify: for the animal kingdom I think "Kill or be killed" is okay. I've got no qualms with animals adhering to this principle. But as much as homo sapien falls under the primate umbrella, which falls under the mammal umbrella, which falls under the animal umbrella, you and I both know we're a different class of animal altogether. We are the pinnacle of evolution, its redoubtable acme, what with our superior bipedalism (the ability to move by means of our two rear legs), opposable thumbs, and most importantly, our ability to conceptualize our own existence. I think there are other animals who possess the latter, but not to the level human beings have attained. We know consciously that we are alive. And we know consciously that we know consciously that we are alive. And we know consciously that we know consciously that we know consciously that we are alive. And... I think you get the picture. (And if you don't, then I'm suspecting whether or not you really or one of us...) In a single word: reason. It is our exquisite ability to reason that separates us from every other organism on the planet. And it is specifically this distinctive, one-of-a-kind ability that should expunge any need to abide by "Kill or be killed." Why? Because we are now past the survival checkpoint in our evolutionary timetable. Reason and rational thinking have delivered us there. The rest of the animal kingdom, however, is still stuck in the mire. They max out at "Live another day." Not us. We have the remarkable capability--OPPORTUNITY--to choose the quality of our lives. Mind you, this is an extraordinary power that we take for granted, without a moment's thought about the uniqueness of it all. The phrase "quality of life" presupposes that we've got (for the most part) survival taken care of. Animals subscribe to "Kill or be killed" because they have no choice. We do! And we exercise this built-in machination of choice all the time: we can eat half our burger and request the other half in a to-go box (not saying that it's easy); we can skip out on parties and bars in favor of studying or saving money; we can hold in our pee and our poop! In short, we can actively go against our own instinct, especially to benefit us in the long run. For this reason we are not eternally subjected to "Kill or be killed." Or, as would be put in Conversations with God, we are until we're not. In other words, until we decide it's time to choose something else. Something that serves us better, like "No more killing," or "Unconditional peace and love," or how about "We are all one"?

Of course, most everyone has consciously or subconsciously already tried chucking "Kill or be killed" out the window. There's just one problem: it's a feisty little shit and boomerangs back into our cell structure no matter how often we try chucking it, no matter how far we try chucking it. The sad reality is that, up until now, the maxim has not left us fully. I think this is why we battle internally with issues like homelessness: helping or neglecting those begging for money on the streets, because they arouse both our natural love (the desire to help) and our learned fear (the safe bet to neglect). I once learned a fantastic acronym for the word "fear": False Evidence Appearing Real. When we shrink into survival mode, it's always fear-based, and nine times out of ten unjustified. It's that false evidence appearing real, so we revert back to instinct: "Me-first"; "Everyone for him/herself"; "Kill or be killed." It's like we're out there on the basketball court with eyes that elect only to see the opponent. We're out there playing one on five.


All this loops us back to the social experiment of pick-up basketball. What catalyzes the Hyde and Jekel transformation between Game 1 and Game 4? And how do evolution and "Kill or be killed" feature into the experiment? Well, let's have a closer look, shall we?

When five people who don't know each other, or know each other just barely, play on the same team, trust is usually no more trust than it is an exacto knife, or the symbol for Boron. Which makes it all the more remarkable that they'll usually come out of the gates playing like quintuplets in a womb, sharing unselfishly, laving in the glory of the united team. My theory is this: natural law dictates that human beings are unconditionally loving and trusting, when they are ranks above survival mode. When the pick-up game starts, these five individuals are creating from a blank canvas. There is nothing yet to survive; no false evidence appearing real, so they act in accordance with natural law. But this usually doesn't last for very long. At some point one of the five players begins to diminish "us" in favor of "me"--and almost always it's F.E.A.R. fomenting this change in paradigm: someone else taking a bad shot, keeping the ball in his/her possession for too long, erring too much, etc. The descension from "us" to "me" is the descension from boundless living to mere surviving. This person feels endangered, which is, of course, an absurd and fallacious notion. Nevertheless he has achieved metamorphosis from Lebron James (or my main man J-Lin, holla!) to Carmelo Anthony. He has already predetermined to shoot the ball the next time he gets it, no matter what. He does this a couple of times, and how do you think his teammates respond? Voila. Their F.E.A.R. bursts into being. "This guy is being a ball hog," say the other four players. "If he's gonna keep shooting every time he gets the ball, I will too." It's usually a subconscious declaration, and as simple as that the crumbling domino effect has spawned, to the inevitable and ultimate demise of the team. 

It always happens like this. If one teammate is ball-deading every time he touches the ball, the other players rarely will continue their marked distributing. Instead they follow suit; the cancer spreads and paralyzes the unselfish movement that had benefitted the team as a whole earlier. "We are all one" is now "Kill or be killed," "Get mine before he gets his." 

This is the metaphor I spoke of earlier, informing humanity of its learned nature. F.E.A.R. assails our best intentions, our natural proclivity to love and to share and to live together like muhfuckin' gangstaz. It activates survival mode, causing me-first hatred, jealousy, greed, etc. It makes insects out of natural giants, mortals out of gods and goddesses, and I guarantee you this: it is the single biggest fallacy we continue to believe in on planet Earth. There is no promise in "Kill or be killed" but what we've already got on the table today: war, starvation, poverty, genocide, rape--all stemmed from F.E.A.R. If you play one on five what do you think is going to happen? 

It's hard to see in the short term but giving to others from your own stash of possessions is the best thing you can do for yourself. The haves should be giving to the have-nots enough so that everybody has. Hatred is not borne from nothing; I think it's the bitter response from the Self feeling incomplete. If everybody in this world had a home and had enough to eat and could live day-to-day decently (which is entirely possible), don't you think a vast majority of the violence and hatred would cease? If we really got that we are all one, wouldn't the bombs stop dropping in the Middle East? On a smaller scale, wouldn't your own daily problems start to dissipate? I'll quote from Conversations with God directly this time: "Live simply, so that others may simply live."

I think it's possible. Inexorably improbable, no doubt; but humanity has moved mountains before. This one here is the Everest of them all. So what would it take? First is recognition. That is always the first step to ameliorating any problem. If you can't see it, how do you expect to change it? Understand deeply when you're on survival mode, rather than live-like-a-muhfuckin'-g mode; when your mind is being about "Kill or be killed" and not "We are all one"; when you're playing one on five with four teammates listlessly watching while you screw up. Once you can recognize these distinctions you get to do something profound: make a clear and conscious choice at the fork. Do I want to keep living in my narrow shell to just get by, or do I want that planetary experience with all my human kin? Then you act accordingly. Rinse, lather, and repeat. Recognize, choose, act, and repeat. For there to be world peace, the whole world's got to get on the "We are all one" frequency.

It's just like in basketball: it only takes one person playing for him/herself to ruin the team. A virus doesn't need to be significant to spread and infect. All five players have to agree that "We are all one" is the most conducive paradigm to team success to hold court. Only one question remains: can we get everybody to agree? That glass-half-empty voice in my head tells me no. But then another voice says, "Fuck that," and gives me the realness in compelling fashion: "What is there not to agree upon? Who the fuck doesn't want world peace? Who the fuck doesn't want that planetary party where the whole world is poppin' bottles, makin' sweet love and dancin' away the night like there was no tomorrow?"

Who the fuck is right.   

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