Clear Intentions and The Irrepressible Power of Unity
“I’d come to realize that all our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language. So I resolved always to speak –and to act—quite clearly, as this was the only way of setting myself on the right track.”
–Jean Tarrou, The Plague by Albert Camus
Camus used The Plague as an expedient to present a misleadingly simple tale that rather intricately weaves threads of inequity, distrust and divisiveness together with common purpose and united effort. The Plague challenges readers to decide which is better: action for the sake of doing what is good for the whole or action that prefers a select few and inures to the general detriment of all others. As hard-earned lessons unfold before him, Tarrou begins to have a clear vision of how to address the plague besieging the city. His plan requires voluntary and joint effort by all citizens, without regard for status or means. A body and all its parts coinciding to achieve one end, diverging to create others, but aimed at working to form the soundness of the whole. And, the course to right action was shaped by plain speech and clear effort. Speech that avoided useless complications. Effort that was meaningful and that made plain sense.
When I lived in Atlanta, I played tennis in the ALTA League. The Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association (ALTA) is a robust league with competitive play at multiple levels, from beginner to highly-skilled. It is specifically a doubles league, and requires a team mentality. Each team must field a minimum of twelve players, and can play five match-ups per face-off. When I joined in 2010, I was a restless thirty-something aspiring to amateur greatness, typical youthful ebullience and sheer foolishness! Essentially, I had more confidence than skill and a limited sense of awareness. I joined the league with a friend I had known for seven years, and we insisted on always playing together. This insistence limited how our team captains could structure match-ups, and grated roughshod against the sensibilities of our teammates.
As a duo, we won our first few outings quite handily, and played well together during our full first season. In fact, our final win of that season clinched the championship for the team! That boosted our confidence as a pairing, and seemed to support our decision to not be separated. The following season we played a team that picked us apart. We won that outing as well, but not without audibly lofting unconstructive criticisms at one another. As a pair, our seams were coming apart, and eventually our confidence would be in tatters. Our captains noticed immediately, and quietly strategized pairing us with other players on our team. We were not aware of this, or we might have resisted. It began during a practice, “Darius, will you do us a favor and practice with Donell today? His partner’s not here.” I felt anxious about the separation, but was happy to “accommodate the team.”
My ego was disproportionate to my talent. Ironically and quietly, I was insecure and diffident. In truth, playing with my friend had actually been the buttress that held me up. Suddenly I had to hold myself up, and I was not sure I could. After practice, I went to the captains and asked to be re-paired with my friend. They both sat me down and explained in clear terms why we were not a great pairing, and never had been: “1) You guys argue audibly with one another, on the court. That shows the opponent that you are not playing as a pair rather as individuals. 2) Your strengths and weaknesses are incompatible. 3) You have gone as far as you can go together; it is time we created pairings that benefit the team.”
I had forgotten the core principle of doubles: you win and lose as a duo, not as individuals. And, in the context of a doubles team, if you and your partner lose your match-up, that loss counts against the team. A team effort is required to win face-offs against other teams. Donell and I played well together. He was patient with my eager attempts at flashy shots, and gentle when my service motion was inconsistent. In turn, I was more than happy to run for balls that were out of his reach, and could move past the occasional point that he played as if he were playing singles instead of doubles. Donnell very obviously was the better player, and I was learning and growing. The separation from my friend had been necessary. Our team captains had been correct in their swift decision to mix us in with the other players.
For the remainder of the season, I was paired with multiple other players. Memorably, one of them was a basketball coach for a local university who reminded me in some ways of my dad. Tall and confident. An outstanding athlete! “Coach,” as we called him, was the most patient of all my teammates, more patient than even my friend had been. Coach also made a great leader of our pairing. I learned why he was a winning coach because he made me feel I could serve to any spot and strike any groundstroke. Unlike my own dad, who could be a boisterous sideline coach that frustrated my brothers when they played their sports, Coach was the very meaning of composure. He must have learned every encouraging word existing in the English language because he seemed to use them all when we played together, and it helped lift us to victory. I learned from Coach how to play as a pairing: use encouraging words, focus on what each of you does well, and fight together, not against each other.
That year our team came one win away from another final, and at a level that was far tougher than the previous year. The best part was feeling united in getting that far. If our team captains had not exercised the courage to speak plainly about what was best for the team, I might have missed that joy and spent the season playing as an individual. It was the year I learned the irrepressible power of unity.