We exist not for ourselves, but for one another

Why do we exist? Not for ourselves, but for one another. This is what great thinkers have taught, whether it was Thomas Merton (more than 30 years ago) or Marcus Aurelius (over 2,000 years ago). However, you don’t have to be a great thinker to realize this. Common sense is all that is necessary. After all, the fact that we are social animals is self-evident. We would not exist if it were not for the cooperation of two individuals (our parents). So, you see, we need one another.

Have you ever wondered why Canada geese fly in a “V” formation? Well, as each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird that follows. The uplift (somewhat like the slipstream of an airplane’s propeller) allows the group of geese to fly 70% more efficiently than a lone goose. But isn’t it more tiring for the lead bird(s)? Yes, it is, so they regularly change their positions during their flight. So, geese, too, do not exist for themselves, but for one another. By watching them, we can learn the importance of cooperation.

Not only in the animal world, but in the very building blocks of nature, we find teamwork, for protons, neutrons, and electrons join to form atoms. Atoms work together to create molecules. Molecules, in turn, make compounds, and so on up the chain. The web of existence seems to be based on cooperation. Or, as Preston Bradley wrote, “The world basically and fundamentally is constituted on the basis of harmony. Everything works in cooperation with something else.” Our atoms, molecules, and genes are pulsating with cooperation; aware of it or not, it’s part of our nature.

Cooperation, working together, or teamwork is the source of great power and creativity. In the past, businesses considered one another as rivals. Today, they form strategic alliances and benefit from the power that cooperation brings. In the arts, cooperation is the source of awe-inspiring beauty. Great works of music, such as Johann Sebastian Bach’s, “Brandenburg Concerto,” for example, could come to life only because of the cooperation of artisans who made the musical instruments, music schools, composers, musicians, conductors, concert halls, patrons of the arts, and audiences.

Athletes epitomize the value of teamwork. That’s why one said, “If you want to be incrementally better: Be competitive. If you want to be exponentially better: Be cooperative.” Social clubs and business associations are other examples how members can gain power by working together. Also, governments form alliances and corporations merge to harvest the advantages of cooperation. And, of course, activists unit to bring about social or political change.

It’s clear, then, we were made to cooperate and it is to our advantage to do so. If it’s so clear, however, why is there more office politics than harmony in many workplaces? Why so many divorces? Why so much violence and crime? Why are we experiencing road rage? Perhaps we’ve forgotten about the benefits and value of cooperation. It may be time to refresh our memory, don’t you think?

A young Buddhist initiate asked his mentor to describe hell. “Ah, hell,” the monk said, “it is like a large banquet hall with countless rows of tables laden with sumptuous meals and delicious drinks.” “But Teacher,” the surprised initiate said, “I thought those in hell would suffer.” “Oh, they do.” answered the monk. “You see, there are four-foot long chopsticks permanently attached to their hands. Although they can pick up the food, the length of the chopsticks makes it impossible to reach their mouths.”

“That’s horrible. Teacher, tell me about heaven.” the initiate pleaded. “Ah, heaven,” the monk sighed, “it is like a large banquet hall with countless rows of tables laden with sumptuous meals and delicious drinks, and permanently attached to everyone’s hands are four-foot long chopsticks.” “But Teacher, isn’t that the same as hell?” the initiate stuttered. “No,” the monk replied, “the people are different. Although they cannot feed themselves, they feed each other!”

The point of story is that we create our own suffering by refusing to cooperate with others. When we work together, we not only succeed, but we do so with a clear conscience. It is always better to succeed without stepping on others or stabbing them in the back.

A point to remember is that cooperation means more than merely working together. It means creating a win-win situation so everyone benefits and there are no losers. Or, as Euripides wrote about 400 years before the birth of Christ, “Joint undertakings stand a better chance when they benefit both sides.” When we approach cooperation in this way, we will be sure to experience the rewards.

The rewards are many, for as Charles Dudley said, “It is one of the beautiful compensations of this life that no one can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” There is more than help involved; there is also transformation. Carl Jung explained it as follows, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances. If there is any reaction, both are transformed.” During this week, let’s reflect on the power of cooperation, remembering that our actions not only impact those we work with and ourselves, but each act also helps to shape the universe.