A reflection upon individuality versus group relations
This question grew roots in my mind for about a week. I was leafing through books in the miscellaneous section of the American book centre, when my eyes fell upon this question: What if Romeo never met Juliet? It was part of a book stimulating people to write and it is in fact such an intriguing thought, that here i am, one week later, writing about it and attempting an answer.
One sure way to get your brain working is to ask it a seemingly obvious question. Few things escape our grasp so consistently as the things we think we know. Allow me to demonstrate the validity of this rather cryptic statement. When you read the names Romeo and Juliet in the title, you immediately knew who I was referring to. Even if you never read or seen the actual play, you surely have not escaped the cultural exposure to the tragic story of the star struck lovers. They are the symbol of romantic love, pure, unreserved and all consuming. So you store this cultural reference safely in this box in your mind. When Stephanie Meyer writes her second novel in the twilight saga on the separation of her couple of star struck lovers, the story line she follows is that of Romeo of Juliet (only with a happy ending). You have read countless stories of tragic love that follow this very formula. The story is such a hallmark in literature that it is coded as one of the typical formulas that love stories must take. When I started this paragraph I said that one of the sure ways of get your mind working is to ask a seemingly obvious question. So, you see, Romeo and Juliet is a safely stored cultural hallmark. You do not think about it and take it as a given. So, let us challenge this seeming unity.
What if Romeo never met Juliet?
There is a simple and dismissive answer to it, of course: we would not be talking about them, moreover, chances are, you might never have been exposed to a male name such as Romeo. Let me take it up a notch? Why would we have not heard of them? I propose to search for the answer in the back story. I invite you to blur the love story of Romeo of Juliet and to put in focus the context under which they met.
Romeo was part of the Montague clan while Juliet was one of the Capulets. In Verona of those times, the Montague's and the Capulets, from the head of the family down to the last servant, could not have met each other without engaging in a brawl and even accidental bloodshed. The quarrel between the two noble families was so old that no one knew how it started or what justified it. It was, however keeping itself alive by the endless cycle of offenses and revenge. The dynamic being very much that of "an eye for an eye". The laws of retribution were revolutionary in the Code of Hammurabi about four thousand years ago. It kept a fragile peace while the offended parties would get compensation and be temporarily appeased. In the four thousand years that have passed since then, humanity has developed sophisticated codes of law and conduct based on deontological ethics and the sanctity of human life. Our modern laws punish trespassers but only by state institutions and do not condone personal revenge.
Our modern minds, however are not foreign to the laws of retribution. In fact, we still resort to them today only they are not keeping peace, by a long stretch, and in fact they are the foundation upon which terrorism is propagated and the long and bloody conflicts of our world today are based.
Take the conflicts between Israel and Palestine. They are maintained by long chains of offenses and retribution which propagate in the society at every level, from the single individual seeking revenge for the death or injury of a close one to the semi organized commando operations of paramilitary organizations, to sometimes full blown strikes of war. At every level of analysis, it is offense and retribution.
The psychology of retribution is tightly weaved with the social identity of the individual or the ego. Therefore, it is a hurt and offended ego which demands reparation and it feels quite justified in this quest. No price is too high to pay and the entire world might as well burn down if one loses their sense of connection to humanity at large.
The sentiment is well captured, in a somewhat humorous manner by Douglas Adams when he says “If there's anything more important than my ego around, I want it caught and shot now.”
Putting the joke aside, the most petty and unresolved conflicts of humanity, be it the Middle East, the Liberal vs. Conservatives in Western societies, the numerous terroristic attacks, if we are to take a cross section today, stem not from conflicting world views, cultural differences, religious differences or different ethical systems. They instead could be put at the feet of hurt egos.
Now that we came this far, I want to propose an exercise of imagination. I want you to allow the concept of ego to be applied to any social entity which has a well defined identity. We start with an individual, of course, as the psychoanalysts have taught us to search for the ego. But then, a family, bound by a common name and blood relation also has an identity understandable as the ego is to the individual. We can take this further to a community that finds its identity in its political convictions (examples such as liberal, conservatives, socialists, communists). And yet, even further, at the level of nations, bound by a common language, a set of stories which they refer as history, a flag, and anthem and other such symbolic hallmarks of a common identity. At all these levels, we can look at these identities as egos. And when egos are offended or hurt, they demand retribution: An eye for an eye, a life for a life, a city for a city. An endless tit for tat game.
Where does it end?
It ends in the defeat of the ego's follies and the realization that we are all interconnected with the world and with each other. It ends in humbly accepting our sins of pride and grandeur. It ends with looking at each other as finite people but unique and precious regardless of our allegiance or heritage. And if we do not lay the arms down and be charitable to each other, it would be as if Romeo never met Juliet.
Because, if Romeo had never met Juliet, he would have hated her along with all the Capulets. And the world would have been robbed from its most iconic love story.