I am sitting where hatred and indoctrination rest against each other like two sleepy dogs lying on a sofa. Here, in this no-man’s-land, my hotel room, I can see the baited rivalry. I am safe for the moment, behind closed, locked doors. But outside my window, I see the scuffling shades of blue brush against one another – the ocean water trying to wash away the rim of the horizon. I am, of course, sitting where Chapel Hill and Durham nearly touch – this liminal place, placid and tranquil in all manner of appearance, is the armistice keeping bitter rivals at bay.
For those of you blessed to be ignorant of this invented friction, Chapel Hill is home to the University of North Carolina. Durham is home to Duke University. These two universities are only miles apart and work well together: collaborate research, share recourses, they even blend degree programs.
But on the basketball court, they hate each other. They hate each other more than the Yankees hate the Red Sox. The rivalry is greater than children playing cops and robbers. Oil and water would be awarded a peace prize for putting aside their differences before UNC and Duke would admit that they admire each other.
I seem so inclined to moan my way through this life, you might think my favorite book in the Bible is Lamentations – Look, O Lord, and see how worthless I have become…Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. Why, a reasonable person might ask, can’t I just enjoy a little harmless rivalry? After all, isn’t it fun to root for my team at the expense of the team I’ve learned to hate? Isn’t it fun to have a playful banter and trade jabs and prod the fan of my rival?
Of course it is. And that is why Duke is a superior basketball team. And that is why the basketball players at UNC can receive a diploma by merely bouncing a ball. (That’s an actual undergraduate degree at UNC, a Bachelor of Dribbling.) This sort of rivalry is not only fun but cathartic because, whether we are capable of admitting it or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s a basketball game. A game that escapes our baser inclinations to divide the world into us and them, our team and their team, tribe verses tribe.
Maybe we need these sorts of rivalries; maybe it is a spiritual treatment for an incurable spite lingering in the fallen genes of humanity. All who pass along the way clap their hands at you; they hiss and wag their heads. It is a good and joyful thing, then, to chant and assuage your champion in the face of the adversary, because, as I said before, it really doesn’t matter.
I leave my hotel room to set about a contrived mission. Will the photographs I take in Chapel Hill naturally reflect the more impoverished beauty than the photographs I take at Duke and Durham? I go to the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill and then to UNC’s campus and then take a stroll down Franklin Street – the street that tells anyone new to town that they’re in a college town. The next day, I go to downtown Durham, then to Duke Gardens, and putter around a few other familiar locations.
The answer is, of course, no. The flowers and sidewalk sights in each town are as gorgeous as they are interchangeable. If beauty is something akin to our soul, the manifestation of reason, an expression of goodness and honesty, if beauty is eternal and the glimpse of God’s regard, then why do we fail to notice the beauty in the other?
Why do we divide up, pick sides, us and them, this and that? Why do we invest so much in our identity that we have to exclude the identity of the other? The political party whose policies we’ve been taught to hate. The cable news network(s) whose propaganda we’ve digested. The other religions who call us infidels, and we call them unsaved. Even our ideas about the sufficiency of God’s grace obscures a rivalry buried deep down within us: “They will go to hell because they are not like us.”
This may seem like a leap from talking about harmless basketball rivalries, but, in this case, it comes from that rancid, bowel sepsis failing to distinguish what really matters from what doesn’t. My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out on the ground.
Years ago, I was watching children playing baseball. They were first and second graders, as I remember. Balls were dropped and rolled though legs as often as they successfully met their targets. The fireflies hovering in the outfield enchanted more attention than what was happening at home plate. The children knew that they were playing. The adults watching the game, however, could not distinguish between fun and consequential.
When a seven-year-old struck out, the competing parents erupted with applause and disturbing congratulations. When a child on second base refused to run, coaches and parents waved wildly and shook the fence and showed their teeth. When a ball rolled through a child’s legs and a man leaned against the fence and scolded the child, I too leaned against the fence and said to the man, “I think you’ve yelled enough at my son.” He shrank away from the field like a piece of trash washed down a sewer drain.
No one could tell the game didn’t matter.
Why do we do this? Why do we care about things that don’t matter and why do we not care about things that do? Why do we divide the world up into us and them? Good guys and bad guys, my team and your team, us and them? Why do conservatives believe liberals are God-hating, pouches of immorality? And why do liberals think conservatives are mindless hypocrites who hate the poor and minorities?
Last Friday there was another school shooting here in America. We hear the breaking news again, as the so-and-sos respond with messages of thoughts and prayers. And we hear the same rhetoric that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. And we hear the counterarguments: actual gun laws, assault weapons ban. The news will cycle through until our attention wanes. Then it will happen again, and we’ll have the same conversation. All the while, the hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children, because we can’t stop the game; we can’t tell we’ve made it a game; we can’t tell that it’s not a game; we can't tell that it matters.
Why can’t we solve this one problem that attacks the defenseless? Because only our team matters. Only our team is right. The other team is ugly, even demonic. One side will feel as though their way of life has been attacked and the other side will collapse any distinction between gun enthusiasts and acts of mass murder. Reasonable voices will be dismissed as lacking conviction. Unreasonable voices will be seated around a news desk and shout at each other, and we will watch and clap and cheer for our team. And somewhere a bus will pick up children who will not come home because we cannot talk to each other.
What if, instead, we decided up front on just a couple of basic facts that everyone can agree on. First, children are important. Second, people’s way of life is also important. What if we decided these two facts were not actually in conflict with one another? What if we talked to each other, not as rivals, but as intelligent folks who see the beauty in the other? What if we could tell the difference between what matters and what doesn’t? What if we turned the TV off? Until then, she weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks…she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have…have become her enemies.