Zink: In defense of nemeses

This is what a medieval joust looks like today: Two students, armed with the vague sensation that they are acquaintances, approach one another from opposite ends of an empty hallway. Tension grows. One, defeated, looks away — but nobody cheers. There is no clattering of hooves, but a muffled vocalization, perhaps a half-grunted “hey.”

Tragically, this bland sort of interaction now encompasses a whole range of social dispositions. We can picture the actors in this tableau being enemies, or Facebook friends, or both. They might both have wanted to stop and talk, but haven’t, for fear of incurring the silent resentment of the other. Not having any way to express dislike for one another, we imagine it even when it does not exist. Our strongest remaining censure, after all, is the “Facebook unfriending,” a punishment so sneaky that its recipients don’t even know that they’ve incurred it unless they specifically look.

I am not advocating the return of duels and jousts, as fun as they would be to watch. I merely suggest that if we were willing to openly antagonize the people we dislike, our lives would be more colorful, our friendships more meaningful and our social interactions less awkward.

Everyone has stories about people whom they have grown to detest. There was a kid in my freshman-year calculus class whose guts I vociferously hated, though I never spoke a word to him. I would always arrive a few minutes late to class, having just trekked down Science Hill from my previous lecture. There would only be one unoccupied seat close to the door, always the same seat next to this boor, this unforgivable dolt who every day piled that seat high with his multitudinous personal effects.

I am positive he was doing this for no other reason than to torture me. After weeks of repeating that same exercise of slowly unburdening that seat while I stood there, no doubt fantasizing about throttling him with that stupid scarf of his, he must have known I was going to sit there. But still, he persisted.

In a perverse way, this proved to be a blessing. Now, when I think of multivariable calculus, I do not think about my struggles with the subject matter or about my hopeless inability to understand the professor. Instead, I am bathed in the warm glow of justified loathing.

For some reason, we have been trained to feel ashamed for harboring negative feelings toward our fellow humans. “Don’t judge someone,” the adage goes, “until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” But that is bullshit, and, still worse, it leads us down the road to a gloomy sort of misanthropy.

Suppose there’s a guy named Steve, who’s a jerk. Social conventions require us, upon observing Steve, to attempt an extenuating narrative for why he is the way he is. Maybe his parents hugged him too little, or too much. Perhaps his siblings or classmates have been cruel to him over the years. We could even blame it on a combination of genetic factors; either way, he can’t help it. By shuffling around the blame in this way, we arrive at a depressing conclusion: Steve is bad because people are bad, or because the world is bad.

It is not necessary for us to feel this way. What if we were to stop trying to explain Steve’s behavior, and simply learned to resent him for it? We could even project some of our rage and frustration with our circumstances towards this boorish individual.

“People are basically good,” we’d think, “except for Steve.”

Making an enemy of someone like Steve is one of the most liberating feelings in the world. Animated by your unfettered enmity, you’ll feel more energetic, your food will taste better, even the cold New Haven winter will seem less unbearable. Compared to Steve, all your friends will seem like saints.

There are a variety of means by which one may obtain such a nemesis. The Yale Political Union, which I would not recommend for any other purpose, provides an excellent environment for personal feuds between students. I have heard stories of people who stop speaking to one another altogether, purely as a result of an election to the leadership of a fictitious political party. There are also less time-consuming ways to achieve this end. Pick a couple people you despise, and the next time you see them tell them to go to Hell. Join their seminars and shoot down all their ideas. Unfriend them on Facebook, even. They deserve it, as far as you know.

Believe me, the adversarial relationships you cultivate will bring joy to yourself and those around you. I had a nemesis in high school, whom I will refer to as “Mildred,” because I am sure she would hate that. One day, in biology class, Mildred warned her classmates not to eat crunchy snacks during the Advanced Placement test. I told her I would bring a bag of chips, just to irritate her, at which point she threatened to kill me. “Did you hear that,” I said to the teacher, “Mildred said she was going to kill me.”

“Hum,” our teacher ruminated, “Now would I want Mike dead … and Mildred in jail?” And she smiled the first smile that we had seen from her in quite a long time.

Michael Zink is a senior in Saybrook College.

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