A shared enemy can connect people in amazing and ironic ways.
There was once a man — let’s call him Ernest. Ernest was troubled. Much of the time, Ernest seemed like a typical suburban neighbor, keeping mostly to himself. But Ernest had a major problem with alcohol. When Ernest had been drinking, he terrorized the people in the houses near his. He shouted and screamed and cursed at people, endlessly, frightening the children, the wives, and the husbands. He stalked the backyards late at night, shining bright lights into people’s houses.
The houses in this little part of town were quite close together, so having Ernest ranting right on the edge of your property, a few feet from your kitchen, was pretty upsetting. Ernest was a line-of-sight harasser; if he could see you, you were a target.
People called the police on Ernest dozens of times, but he knew how to go right up to the line of legality, so there wasn’t much they could do.
Four neighbors, all mothers, became much closer as a result of all of Ernest’s activity. Once a week, they’d gather at somebody’s house for an event they called “pizza night.” They’d order pizzas, then sit all the little kids in front of a movie on the television. Then they’d gather in the kitchen to chat and connect over a glass of wine. These were accomplished women — one was a scientist who’d chosen to raise two children on her own, another was a corporate executive. One was my wife, who was homeschooling our children and building a career as an artist.
While these women were quite different, they shared the experience of raising kids in the shadow of Ernest’s ranting. And over weeks and months and years, they became close. We’d all get together with the husbands too from time to time, but we all knew it was the connection among the women that kept this special relationship going.
I don’t want you to think that all they talked about was Ernest. His behavior started things, of course, but these were interesting people with interesting lives. They talked about the town, their careers, politics, children, and everything else. Once they got together, there was just too much else to share to let Ernest occupy more than a tiny corner of their mental space.
Over nearly two decades, things changed. Ernest had periods of quiet that lasted years, and then started ranting again. One of the women moved to another town, and two moved to bigger houses, but still just a few blocks away. Now Ernest’s rants were no longer a threat — if he couldn’t see you, he wasn’t interested in harassing you.
The kids were doing their own things in high school and college — and pizza night was just a childhood memory to them. But the women would still connect over pizza every month or two, because that’s what old friends do.
Recently, Ernest got back to his old habits. Yet another accomplished woman with a young child was now in the line of sight — she now lived in the house that one of the pizza night ladies had moved from years before. She reached out to us to ask if we’d ever had problem with Ernest. And we invited her to join pizza night, and we laughed and drank and ate pizza and it was just like old times. She knew we understood what was happening with her, we shared some ideas on what to do about it, and then we just connected like any other group of old and caring friends.
The phenomenon of pizza night sort is sort of amazing. Here was a group of people whose common experience centered around a common enemy. But once they had connected, the the connection remained strong and solid, persistent and healthy and growing, even as the enemy faded into the background.
It made me think about other groups who perceive a common enemy. Labor unions, for example. Jews. Immigrants in America. Minorities everywhere. Persecution has a way of bringing people together. And once they are together, they find other ways to connect that have little to do with the persecution that connected them in the first place.
Striving for a goal together unites people. But a common enemy unites them even more. United people connect and build things together. What they build may last decades or centuries, long after the enemy is forgotten.
It felt special to be there at the birth of pizza night. I value these people, and they value each other. What a cherished thing to be a part of.
I also wonder about the Ernests of the world, working so hard to strike fear into the people around them. They may think the fear is the most powerful way they can create control of the world around them. But fear has a way of bringing people together. And once welded together, they remain connected, long after the fear has faded away.