I wish you a merry Christmas! That’s what atheists do. We’re merry that way.
The second part of that greeting, you know, wishing you much success in the new year? I was going to wish you that, but now I’m not. Instead I wish you much cooperation. Whether you succeed at anything or not next year, and whether or not Santa brings you what you want, 2014 will be a beautiful year for you if you only cooperate.
I came to this realization at the late age of 49. I’d driven down to Carlsbad on a Friday afternoon to judge at a high school debate tournament. Taken the day off, filled up the car, you know, doing my duty to occasionally participate in one of my kid’s school events, when “Brinnnnnng!” my cell phone rang. It was some kid from the tournament. “Hi, Mr. Davidson.”
“We don’t need you today.”
“Who is this?”
“Billy, from the debate tournament.”
“Well, thanks for letting me know.”
“Yes, sir. Now you can enjoy your day.”
It was really thoughtful of young Billy, letting me know that I was superfluous just as I pulled into the school parking lot after making the two-hour drive from Los Angeles. Then my phone rang again. “Brinnnnnng!”
“Hey, it’s Michael. What are you doing?”
“Just hanging out in North County San Diego.”
“Have you started drinking yet?”
“Swing by the office at three. We’re having Friday happy hour.”
The spirit of Christmas
I got to the SPY corporate headquarters and was ushered in. A keg of Lost Abbey ale had been tapped, and the staff was slowly filtering into the warehouse, where chairs had been set up in front of a screen. Everyone was relaxed and happy, and who wouldn’t be on a lovely Friday afternoon with work ending a couple of hours early, punctuated by beer and a movie?
Michael gave a brief talk. Well, brief for him. He talked about competition versus cooperation. It struck me as strange that a company whose existence is predicated on successful competition would be limning the contrast of survival of the fittest with survival of the most cooperative. Then the video began.
Are humans innately competitors, or are they cooperators? Are we alpha organisms who dominate and lead a herd, or are we cooperative creatures ruled by the desire to share and the desire to help each other reach a common goal?
The video was striking in the way it made its case. Some of the points were derived from pseudo-scientific flummery, but many were core truths: Society depends on cooperation. We feel best when we do things in tandem with others. Lonely achievements are empty. Our mirror reflex, or our human instinct to recoil at the pain of others and to smile at the happiness of strangers, is an innate expression of our desire to do good things together. This was Michael’s message about the the approach of his company, and a broader suggestion about the approach of life as well.
If you believe that competition is where it’s at, and that you’ve only succeeded when you’ve reached the pinnacle, crushed your rivals, and amassed the biggest amount of the pie for yourself, this video won’t change your mind. But if you’re gliding into the holiday season like most of us, vaguely aware that more presents don’t equal happiness, conscious that winning isn’t the key to satisfaction, and alert to the chord in your soul that resonates when you hear of good deeds, then this message of cooperation versus competition is the right one at the right time of year.
The cooperative bicyclist
Bicyclists are an extremely cooperative bunch, even when they’re doping at 60+ masters races, crashing their enemies into the curb, and bunny-hopping two-by-fours rather than calling them out for the poor guy behind who hits it at full speed. Riding in any kind of group requires cooperation on so many levels. Despite the log head who refuses to call shit out, most of us do. Taking turns at the front, riding steadily enough so that the person behind you and the people beside you can predict your path, even the simple act of agreeing on a start time and a route are all fundamentally cooperative acts that make the group ride or the bike race possible.
The essence of cooperation is distinct from giving or charity, where you part with something you’d rather keep simply in order to help someone else. Cooperation means parting with something you’d rather keep so that other people will part with something they’d rather keep so that you as a group can get something that none of you can achieve by yourselves. Even the hyper-competitive moment when some wanker dusts you in the sprunt quickly dissolves into a loosely formed, panting group, with kudos and back slaps and the occasional curse about “Why’d you chase me down, you fucker?”
I see a lot of bloody-fanged competition in bicycling, but I see a lot more cooperation. The microcosm of racing is dwarfed by the fred rides of friends and strangers rolling up and down the coast, sometimes in masses, sometimes in twos and threes. People sharing the work, and being there for the other fred when he flats, crashes, gets taken out by a car, or needs to stop and have another frozen pizza, are the ways that we build something a lot more real and a lot more human than spots on a Strava leaderboard.
As an atheist I’m pretty sure that St. Nick doesn’t give a rat’s ass whether you were naughty or nice. But whether or not you’re a believer or an infidel, a merry cooperative Christmas will do more to fill your stocking than all the sales at Wal-Mart and Target put together. Cheers!