"You have to know when to kick ass and when to kiss ass." That Tweetable maxim was Leonard Stern's principal advice to me during the six years I worked for him at Village Voice Media.
Stern's mega-fortune began with Hartz Mountain, the pet products company he reportedly helped build by pressing supermarket managers to place his wares on the lower shelves "so the dogs can see them." His kick/kiss philosophy was nuanced: He gave complete editorial freedom to his papers but had no compunction about selling them to vulture capitalists at the very peak of the market in 1999, a minute and a half before the dot.com crash.
Stern didn't display the schadenfreude of French classical author Francois De La Rochefoucauld (who said, "It is not enough to succeed, others must fail"). But both reveal the zero-sum philosophy our culture has come to celebrate: You can win only if someone else loses--and if you want to reach the top, you must crush your competition.
Sometimes it's not so easy to tell a kick from a kiss. President Obama discovered this when he tried to establish macho cred in his handling of BP by telling NBC's Matt Lauer that he needed to meet with experts "to find out whose ass to kick." It came across as more obsequious than tough.
I'm not suggesting that ass-kicking is invariably wrong. I recently went to Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA, to attend a retreat on reversing the tendency to wish others ill. There, in the main hall, was a poster on handling the mountain lions that, legend has it, may be encountered at that bucolic spot. You'd think being stalked by a deadly cat would call for instant tail-turning. You'd be wrong, according to the poster, which instructs: "Do not run. Make eye contact. Raise your arms and wave them slowly. Speak loudly in a firm voice." If the animal attacks, fight back --humans have fought off these animals with "sticks, caps, jackets, gardening tools and bare hands." Who knew?
Of course, many situations--congressional seats, spots on the varsity team, records in the Top 10, Pulitzer Prizes--are by definition zero sum. If Democrats don't get down and dirty to counter Republican ruthlessness, for example, crucial legislation will continue to fail and the November mid-terms will be a disaster.
But do we have to revel in the act of burying those who fall short? Apparently so, according to such best-selling books as football legend Mike Ditka's In Life, First You Kick Ass (also a wine by the same name!) and Donald Trump's Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life. Wildly successful TV franchises including Survivor,--whose contestants exult when kicking competitors off the island -- and Trump's The Apprentice, with its triumphant tag line "You're Fired" -- also stoke the ethos of glorying in your opponents' bad fortune.
It's even worse in sports, where a fantastic athlete or team is labeled a disgrace if they lose a hard-fought contest by a hair, as in the Netherlands' recent 1-0 World Cup loss to Spain and the Boston Celtics' narrow defeat by the LA Lakers in the NBA Finals. And just about every action movie from Westerns to the Rambo series to the Terminator franchise to last year's Kick Ass celebrates not just winning but sticking it to whomever doesn't. (Sequels often crank ass-kicking up a notch: Volume 2 of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s movie-inspiring comic book series is Kick-Ass: Balls to the Wall.)
Is this just human nature, or can we be happy about our achievements without causing an equal amount of suffering in someone else?
At Spirit Rock, we practiced Metta, a Pali word usually translated as "lovingkindness" but--to steer clear of New Age/touchy-feeliness--better thought of as simple kindness or friendliness. Instead of focusing on, say, your breath or a mantra while meditating, you train the mind to concentrate on well-wishing towards yourself and others, including those with whom you have difficult relationships.
According to Rick Hanson, co-founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplation, focusing on positive mental states creates grooves in the brain that can help reroute a lifetime of zero-sum conditioning. Buddhist teacher James Baraz, who led our Metta retreat and whose recent book Awakening Joy fleshes out these themes, suggests that noticing and appreciating moments of happiness or joy--even fleeting ones--just a few times a day can, within weeks, cause our everyday minds to incline more towards these states.
There's no avoiding the inevitable rough and tumble of life. But who needs Trump, trash sports talk and Survivor when you can learn all you need to know at Father Guido Sarducci's Five Minute University? Its entire business syllabus makes no mention of kicking or kissing and can be repeated twice in one Tweet: "You buy something, and you sell it for more."