When I was kid growing up in Syracuse, New York, in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, most of the boys in my neighborhood got together every weekend for epic, rough-and-tumble outdoor sporting sessions. This was well before the invention of X-Boxes and other mind-blowing video games, so the alternative was sitting around the house alone all day, vegetating in front of the TV and hoping for reruns of The Three Stooges (with the original Curly, of course).
I can still vividly remember the doorbell ringing one Saturday afternoon a few weeks after my family moved to the town of Manlius from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. To my amazement, as I peered out of a window in our living room, I saw a group of at least 10 preteens.When my mom opened the door to ask them what they wanted, they enthusiastically said they heard there was a new kid, and asked her if I would like to join them in a game of neighborhood football.
All of seven years old at the time, I was as lonely as they come, and this was a reversal of fortune akin to being airlifted off Gilligan’s Island and tapped to join the A-Team. In my mind, it was on par with what Dorothy and Toto must have felt after they left boring, black-and-white Kansas and woke up in Technicolor Oz, surrounded by those fun-loving munchkins.
I then tagged along with my new gang, as they continued to go door to door until every able-bodied kid in the neighborhood was gathered. Then they searched for a vacant lot, preferably with grass (where we wouldn’t get yelled at by an adult) and played football, soccer, kick-the-can and any other game we could think of until the sun went down.
THE GAME itself was always inconsequential, as long as the rules and teams were agreed by all to be fair. And as soon as it began, we were like a pack of hyperactive dogs finally taken off their leashes after days of being sequestered in our respective homes.
The best part, though, was that when our heads were in the game, it was like the space-time continuum simply stopped. We all “lost ourselves” in the best possible way, because we stopped thinking in terms of “me,” and shifted our focus to the more empowering “us.”
Individuality took a backseat to the greater good, and self-serving showboats who only played for themselves were quickly identified and isolated. It was like an inverted version of Lord of the Flies, where “Piggy” wasn’t the fat, awkward kid, rather the narcissistic, selfish one.
And through our hours and hours of collective interactions, we learned invaluable life skills – ranging from the importance of fair play to conflict resolution, respect, sacrifice, sportsmanship, brinkmanship and even diplomacy.
Although we sometimes settled disputes with our fists, for the most part that was rare, and we understood that the team concept was the reason we had gathered and had so much fun in the first place. Indeed, it was that very concept of camaraderie that our developing minds truly grasped and believed in.
By the time we returned home, most of us looked as if we had been through a war. Be it a bloody lip or nose, scraped knees, grass and dirt stains in areas that defied logic (and physics), we wore our battle marks with pride – and bore no hard feelings – with the tacit understanding that “real men” gave it their all and represented their team honorably.
WHAT I find most fascinating and rewarding about those bygone days is how relevant, instructive and transferable the rules of the playground I learned as a child are as an adult. Even instrumental in finding greater meaning in our place in the world.
Although we were more “Bad News Bears” than “The Dream Team,” our interactions and teamwork taught us a decidedly adult truism about life. Specifically, that the most liberating and empowering state one can actualize comes through understanding that true meaning and purpose can only be derived from beyond the self.
In short, that by becoming part of something larger, you are set free from the prison of self-absorption.
THAT SAID, there was a distinct, yet thankfully short-lived, period in my adult life when I forgot this invaluable lesson. I had become a professional mercenary, playing for whatever team had the deepest pockets – subject-matter or level of personal interest be damned.
During this time, any selflessness I once had took a back seat to my salary, expense account, 401(k), vacation prospects, quality of my apartment and dinner reservations.
And it ate away at my soul.
Indeed, after years of living for me, and me alone, there came a point when no amount of money or recognition could compensate for my undeniable emptiness. In many ways it felt no different than the isolation I experienced as a new kid, living an uninspired black-and-white existence, before that gang of munchkins guided me through Oz.
I came to realize in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t learn to become a team player again, and channel my once-considerable potential for an “adult” cause that I actually believed in, I was destined to become a shell of my former self, and of what I could have been.
This epiphany, coupled with the encouragement and strength of my beloved grandmother, Carola, is what ultimately led me to move to Israel to proudly join the most outnumbered team in history, and it’s the most rewarding decision I’ve ever made.
WITHOUT QUESTION the most miserable men and women I have known are those who “play for themselves.” Those who are trapped within the limited confines of their own thinking, and have little regard for their teammates.
While some of them may be materially wealthy, there is also frequently an undeniable hollowness within them that cannot be filled by their superficial victories.
Most notably, it appears that Generation Y (and whatever the latest generation is called) have been trained, to an almost Pavlovian degree, to put themselves before any team in the pursuit of glory. A lot of this, I believe, is due to a popular culture fueled by media that makes billions by exploiting our basest thoughts and insecurities – falsely making it appear as though “winning” is defined by glory-seeking and accolades directed at the self.
This, in turn, is creating an epidemic of Xanex and anti-depressant popping young men and women, who were raised to believe they were the center of the universe, only to learn – frequently, in traumatic fashion – that in fact, they are not.
Of course, this mentality is also enabled by “helicopter parents” who mislead their kids into thinking they are exponentially more gifted than their peers, despite not giving them a chance to compete meaningfully.
It’s tragic seeing an entire generation quantifying success and meaning based on absurd metrics that may as well have been designated by Donald Trump or a rap star – only to be besieged by panic attacks and depression when they realize they have been set up for failure.
IT WAS “The Greatest Generation” that taught us through their selfless actions and team mentality that we must be greater than the sum of our parts. Israel very much shares this mentality, and despite being dwarfed by countries that literally pray for its demise by the second, its people are among the happiest I have ever known.
This, I think, is because of Israelis’ inherent understanding that they are in this fight together – as one – for better or worse, thus allowing them to not have to feel like they are so alone.
The most fulfilled people I have ever known, almost without exception, are those who dedicate their lives to a pursuit that they know, unequivocally, dwarfs them. Whether it’s finding a cure for breast cancer, fighting to end genocide, creating and contributing meaningful art, or making their community a better place, it is the team concept that truly sets our minds free.
I’m just grateful I reminded myself of this lesson, taught by kids on the playground, before it was too firstname.lastname@example.org
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