Human Nature: From Competition To Compassion

Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz

Canadian anthropologist, Wade Davis, defines ethnosphere as the sum total of all of the ways that human beings have imagined the world into existence. Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz

I’m going to pose two questions here; these are important questions, and according to Tom Shadyac, director of the 2010 ground-breaking documentary I Am, ones we don’t ask ourselves often enough.

What’s wrong with our world?

What can we do about it?

Before you read the rest of this article, ponder these questions for a few minutes. Think of the last time you grew weary because you saw something about the world that you knew wasn’t right. Maybe it’s the homeless woman with her young child, standing outside in the Costco parking lot, begging. Maybe it’s the poverty that lines our city streets, and the idea that there are people in other countries who would be better off if they had the chance to be homeless in America instead of where they are now.

Or maybe it’s the turn of a head to avoid eye contact, or the contemplation and over-analysis of whether or not you should smile at the stranger walking in the opposite direction as you.

For me, all of these examples leave a common ringing in my ears. It’s a concern that is at the core of what I believe in, and yet the society I live in is constantly fighting against it, trying to convince me that the way I think and feel no longer applies to this world. But there is one reason I can never fully succumb to this lie. It’s the one conviction within me that has remained the strongest and most consistent throughout my entire life: compassion.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” -Dalai Lama

As you may already know, Tom Shadyac is the director of almost all of Jim Carrey’s famous comedies. If you’re like me, meaning you’re not a director, then you may not often think twice about the life of a director, let alone their state of mind. It’s easy to assume that someone like Tom would not even have the time to be concerned with the problems of this world. Not to mention Jim Carrey, who is known by so many for his hilarious movies and amazing sense of humor. These guys are getting paid to be funny, so it’s easy to assume that their lives are just as happy-go-lucky as their movies. But that’s not even close to the truth. Jim Carrey struggled for years, trying to determine what the purpose of the human life is. This mentality of confusion and frustration, along with a demanding career in the entertainment industry led him into depression and a huge loss of self. Many celebrities work their way up until the only way to go is down. While speaking at a social consciousness convention held by the Global Alliance for Transformational Entertainment, Jim Carrey reveals a powerful statement about the popular idea of more money being equated to more happiness: “I hope everybody could get rich and famous and will have everything they ever dreamed of, so they will know that it’s not the answer.” He got to the top, and that’s where the world promises you happiness. Can you imagine the disappointment of reaching the world’s idealistic view of happiness and not feeling happy when you get there?

Now I may be a little late to the game watching I Am, but it struck me in such a way that I wanted to writ e about it, particularly the question that we must ask before we can find out what is wrong with the world: How has the world carried on thus far? This question has many implications, but the point of focus is whether the human race is by nature competitive or cooperative. Think about modern America. The American dream is typically acquired as a result of one factor, and that’s being better than the next guy. We venerate individuality in our society, and this is something you see everywhere. Spelling bees, sports, fashion shows, gyms, television, the music industry. “We fashion our world on the idea of needing to be significant at someone else’s expense.” When did success go from being your best to being the best? Regardless of when it happened, it happened. And I hear a lot of people say, “Yeah, well. That’s just the way the world works.”

Bingo. There’s the problem. The world doesn’t work that way. Yes, that is how we have continued to feed the illusion that it does, but the truth is, we are only kidding ourselves.

“I think we will have to have shock after shock after shock before we finally wake up, as a species, to the fact that we’ve got it all wrong…” But what is it? Are we doomed as a species to continue treating our world and the people in it as if they are mere delaying factors in the time it takes for us to achieve our own individual success? I don’t think so. Not if we can raise enough awareness about what it will take to end the vicious cycle.

When speaking of his frustration with trying to figure out what’s wrong in the world, Tom Shadyac states, “I see more news about the war in Iraq, and I see poverty, but I keep thinking, ‘these are not the problems’. There’s a poison underneath…” I think the ‘poison’ that Shadyac was referring to is fear. Fear that we’re not good enough. Fear that the things we do won’t be great enough to inspire the entirety of a generation.


“The truth of who we are is that we are because we belong.” -Desmond Tutu. Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz

“Love is what we were born with. Fear is what we learned here.” -Marianne Williamson

The only real problem here is our perspective. There’s a handful of people who have drastically changed the course of history in this world. The number one thing we need to realize is that we do not have to walk in the shadows of our predecessors. The world-changing qualities within you are not just branches of the changes already made by previous historical figures. Those who stood up for the change they saw as necessary in the generations before us did so with the hope that we would not merely follow in their footsteps, but expand their footprint by doing even greater things. The only thing that can destroy the motivation to do so is fear. Our society in particular teaches that the whole world is against you. You are alone, and the only way to get by is to fight back. We’re not at fault for doing so, it’s just a natural defense technique that is programmed into our minds as “necessary”. So, we close ourselves off from the world. We set our minds on nothing but our own little circle of life (i.e. family, friends, work, school, etc.), and we try to disconnect ourselves from a world that requires the cooperation of it’s inhabitants in order to survive.

“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.” -Franklin D. Roosevelt

Not only does the functionality of our world require interaction and community between the species that live within it, but we ourselves have a conviction- a hardwiring- for a compassionate response to the suffering of others, whether it be another human being or even an animal.

The conclusion that I draw from what I’ve learned from I Am is that our species is predominantly compassionate and cooperative, and that by isolating ourselves from these intrinsic qualities within us, we build barriers of confusion and selfishness. This separates us into groups that I’m going to call social species; and what I mean by this is that over time, we train ourselves, as well as those who come after us, to idolize individuality to the point where we alienate other human beings because they do not exclusively agree with our beliefs, standards, and way of life. Consequently, our focus goes from working together to a position of judgement and contempt for our neighbors.

What kind of structure do we accomplish here? The connection withers completely when we feed this cycle of deception. This is where I believe all of our stigmatic American customs like greed, insecurity, fear, selfishness, confusion, and competition have grown from. Without communion and connection, it’s just a dog-eat-dog situation.

We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.” -Cesar Chavez

That’s what’s wrong. There’s a certain amnesia that comes with a radical desire for individuality that has caused us to forget the sense of compassion and togetherness that is necessary to function as a community. And sadly enough, I see many examples of this when I am out catching waves or learning about today’s surf culture. Competition is a prominent factor in most sports. But surfing wasn’t always just a sport. It was a community pastime that was for anyone who wanted to have fun. If athletes weren’t pushed to be better than their peers, then we wouldn’t have to put so much energy into celebrating the successes of one person; and we could instead celebrate the ocean and all that it gives us. Because in the end, it’s not the individual that matters, and it’s not even the legacy they leave. It’s the billions of individuals that have the ability to create a trending sense of community in this world- our only world- where all of our money and successes are as abstract and fleeting as the universe is eternal. The world that says “I am because I belong.”


“I AM” Trailer:

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Alexandra is an avid thinker, unrelentlessly intrigued by reading, writing, talking and learning philosophy. She values knowledge through experience and believes that true virtue is earned by seeking knowledge through self-discipline, awareness, and patience. Throughout life, determining truth within her spectrum of beliefs has been a prominent goal, and this is reflected in her writing personality. Alexandra first fell in love with the ocean during a group paddle-boarding session on her eighteenth birthday, and her desire to abide in the Ocean increased every time she picked up a surfboard that summer. Since then, she is only anxious when she is forced by life to take a break from surfing, but through writing, she is able to keep a strong connection with the waves and those who surf them.



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