In the classic book The Art of War, Sun Tzu teaches about far more than war. He also teaches some of the key elements of a joyful and meaningful life.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Though this is a simple statement, it has deep complexities for all aspects of life.
Perhaps the easiest way to comprehend this statement is to look at the mind of a successful coach in any team sport. If she understands her team, the strengths and weaknesses of each player, she will experience some success. But when an opponent comes at her with more talented athletes, an offence or a defence that her players have never seen, she and her team will be defeated.
A great coach knows the importance of studying her opponent, the strengths of each opposing player, the type of offence they run, and she can even anticipate the strategies they’re capable of using. In addition, she understands herself as a coach and is constantly learning from her mistakes, always studying, constantly adjusting and adapting. Though no one wins every game, there’s never a lost opportunity for learning and improvement.
The same principle applies to the world around us. Every time I study or teach about global issues, I ask myself the same questions:
- What just happened?
- Why did it happen?
- What can we do about it?
Whether you examine the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide or Rwanda, you see the same patterns repeated. We know by now the signs of impending crimes against humanity, the creation of an us-against-them mentality, segregation, polarization, discrimination, racist language and unjust laws being passed.
We also know that we build just societies by providing equal rights to all people, regardless of the prejudices of the day. We know that when there’s access to healthcare and education, when there are just wages and a sense of hope, societies thrive.
In addition, we know that each one of us can be a part of the solution to the world’s problems. The more good we do, the more good that’s achieved. Society gains momentum and before we know it we’re looking back at a better world, and on to the next task.
Sun Tzu’s lesson also requires that we reflect on our personal lives. We can’t be happy and effective unless we live our lives in balance.
If we spend our time constantly complaining about how everyone else is the problem, we will make ourselves miserable. If we focus only on understanding and improving ourselves, we will have some success.
If we can understand the challenge we’re facing as well, however, we learn to effectively respond. Every encounter becomes a valuable lesson, every apparent setback gives us deeper insight. There really can be no failure when we live our lives this way.
Life is not meant to be easy and problem free. We’re all here for a purpose. It can be frightening to see ourselves as we really are. It can be terrifying to examine humanity’s capacity for evil. When we look deep enough, however, we see the truth of our goodness and the capacity for our greatness.
Every challenge in life is an opportunity to achieve greatness. When I understand myself and I understand the situation, I move forward with confidence and purpose, and I am ready for success.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.