Why we all can’t get along

A Parable About Unity Under Lock and Key

A key and a padlock met for the first time.

“You look funny,” said Key.

“You look weird,” said Lock.

“I’m slim, I’m long, and I have beautiful detail on my edges. You’re heavy and just shapeless.” said Key.

“Me? I’m all nice and rounded, with intricate internal workings. You look like a stick and have no insides to speak of!” said Lock.

“Please. Don’t make me laugh. Can you even measure up to what I’m capable of? I open doors. I create access!” said Key

“Nonsense!” said Lock. “You’re useless against thieves. How can you compare to my ability to keep places safe?”

“Um. Guys?” said a new voice, softly.

“Who’s that?” said Key and Lock, together, as they spun around.

“Over here. Look up.”

They did. Above them stood a large steel Door.

“Considering your obvious potential,” continued Door, in a surprisingly gentle voice for such an imposing object, “you’re both aren’t very bright, are you? You obviously don’t see that neither of you is much use without the other.”

“Nonsense!” said Lock.

“Impossible!” said Key.

“Whatever.” said Door.

There was silence for a few minutes. Door sighed. “Lock, remind me what you do again?”

“I secure places by preventing access,” Lock replied.

“To everyone?” asked Door.

“Yes, everyone,” replied Lock, beaming with pride.

“So, let me get this straight — absolutely no one can get access once you have secured a place?”

Key saw it coming first, and started to chuckle.

“Yes,” Lock beamed, “absolutely no…”

Door smiled. Key rolled on the floor, unable to hold the laughter back. “You idiot! Not even the owner would be able to get in!”

Lock was silent. Key was ecstatic. But Door wasn’t done.

“Hold up, Key.” Something in the voice stopped Key’s laughter. “You grant access, you said?”

“Yes?” Key looked suspicious.

“But what use would you be if Lock wasn’t securing it in the first place?”

“Right.” Key looked down.

“No need to look so glum, guys,” said Door, in that surprisingly soft voice. “Look, the only reason you both feel so foolish now is because you were, well, actually being fools to begin with. But that’s a good thing: the moment you realise you were foolish is the moment your foolishness becomes past tense.”

They both smiled weakly.

“You’re both nice looking, I won’t lie, but face it, you’re pretty limited alone. I mean, Key, for all your ability, you don’t really get to do anything until Lock gets to work. And Lock, if I know anything about your type, chances are you can’t even get to work without Key’s help. But even if you could start without Key, you certainly couldn’t stop—you’d end up keeping even the rightful owner out!”

They eyed each other. Then they both turned to Door.

Key spoke up first. “Okay, fine, we get it. But what do we do now?”

“Well,” said Door, “before now, I’d have told you to be less self-centred and to think more about others. But I’ve had to learn, too. Apparently, it’s the other way round: it’s the pull of something outside you that keeps you from being self-centred. Make sense?”

“Sort of, but go on,” said Lock. Key nodded.

“The problem, basically, was both of you focusing on what either of you could do alone, and failing to see how you’re part of something bigger. Your job isn’t simply to grant access”—Door glanced at them in turn—“or to prevent entry. No. Your purpose, only possible together, is to grant access to the authorised, but keep out anyone else. The purpose of either of you lies outside both of you.”

“Oh!” They replied.

“I never quite saw it like that,” said Key.

“Wow. This changes everything,” said Lock.

And it did. They had many more heated arguments after that, but as a team, not as opponents. (Hopefully.)

The end.


At least the end of the parable, anyway. It’s a simple tale, but I hope you liked it. Now, allow me to be pedantic and summarise the main points.

  1. You (and yes, me) tend to judge others by yourselves: the first thing you notice about others is often how they’re like—or different from—you. This is not a bad thing, it’s just how the human brain is wired. But it’s a bad thing if that’s where you stop.
  2. Achieving unity whether in a couple or in a country, begins with understanding that you’re one of many actors in a bigger story. And nothing kills unity like you making yourself the reference point. (Cells that do that in your body are called—you guessed it—cancer cells.)
  3. Don’t mistake the fact that someone looks or acts like you for unity. Two padlocks, no matter how amazing they are, won’t open any door. Also, don’t mistake someone being different for incompatibility. Two keys might seem compatible in your imagination, but they prove terrible at getting anything done in real life.
  4. That someone is different from you is not a problem. It’s the entire freaking point. But so long as you start and end with your own self as a reference point? Yeah, it’ll be a problem.
  5. Be suspicious of any unity that requires sameness. To talk about unity, you actually need difference. And a purpose you both agree on.

This idea for this came to me this week, as I thought about conflict, and why unity is so difficult, and what it takes to achieve real togetherness within a couple, a company, or a country.

I’m no rosy-eyed idealist, though: I don’t expect that this will change the world. But I am an idealist, after all, and I hope this offers a refreshing perspective on whatever makes unity difficult for you in your personal life and relationships.

And if somehow you get to share what you find, who knows how far it’ll go?

To unity, in a crazy world.


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