I grew up in the 1960s. In those benighted days we didn't have personal computers or the Internet, cable TV or DVD players. We didn't even have microwave popcorn; we had Jiffy Pop, which we heated on the stove in a tinfoil container. In short, there were fewer entertainment options.
So one of the things families did was sit around a kitchen table and play games. In our family we played Monopoly, Life, and Yahtzee, among others.
The thing about playing those games was that you had to commit yourself to winning. If you didn't care about winning, the game was a big snooze; it was pointless, a waste of time. So you wanted to win; you really did. When you won, you felt smugly pleased with yourself. When you lost, you felt frustrated or disappointed or even angry. Either way, the feeling didn't last very long -- because it was, after all, only a game.
I think those games of my childhood have a lot to teach us about life. We all experience challenges and setbacks, successes and failures, and we can't help being affected by them. Kipling's advice to
meet with Triumph and Disaster
and treat those two impostors just the same
is beautifully expressed but probably impossible to put into practice. We will never treat triumph and disaster "just the same." No matter how philosophical about it we may be, we value success and we disvalue failure. We're built that way.
We can, however, learn to see our ups and downs as less dramatic than they may appear. We can commit ourselves to winning the game, while still being aware that it is only a game and that winning will provide only a temporary rush, soon to dissipate in the press of other events. In other words, we can play all-out while still allowing a small watchful part of us to stand back and observe ourselves in amused detachment.
I have found that this is easier to do then it may sound. Mainly, it requires self-awareness, a willingness to monitor your own thoughts and to catch yourself when you're becoming overly invested in a certain outcome. Thoughts that lead us astray are constantly popping into our heads, but if we see them as nothing more than thoughts, we can smile at them and brush them off.
Many of these thoughts are of the "if only" type. If only my candidate wins the election (or "their" candidate doesn't) ... if only I get that promotion or that raise (or the other guy doesn't) ... if only I can afford that new plasma TV or sports car (and my neighbor can't) ... then I'll be happy and everything will be perfect! But if things don't go my way -- I'll be crushed, shattered! Woe is me!
These thoughts are often couched in less crudely self-seeking terms. We convince ourselves that if our candidate loses, the country or the planet will be doomed. See, I'm not just thinking about myself and my own ego-investment in a particular politician's campaign -- not at all! I'm worried about the planet, dammit! I'm looking at the big picture!
But this is a lie. We are not looking at the big picture. We are simply trying to puff ourselves up by imagining that our particular ego-needs are synonymous with the future of humanity.
Or we say: I'm not concerned about getting a promotion just for my own sake. It's about justice. It's about what's fair. It's about what's right. I deserve this promotion and if I don't get it then it means there's no justice in the world. The whole cosmic balance of right and wrong depends on my getting this promotion. It's not about me at all!
Again, of course, it is all about us. Inflating our personal needs or desires into metaphysical absolutes is just another way of expanding the ego -- in this case, blowing it up so big that it fills the entire universe.
When we think this way, we're like a little kid who hasn't yet learned how to enjoy playing a kitchen table game. For a very little kid, the outcome of the game really does seem like life and death. Winning is unadulterated joy; losing is inconsolable sorrow. When we grow up a little, we learn not to take games so seriously. When we grow up a little more, we learn not to take life quite so seriously, either.
In the past, when I would read exactly this same kind of argument in self-help books, I would resist it, sometimes angrily. I would protest that treating life as a game means playing to lose, or not playing at all. I would say that if someone regarded life as less than 100% serious and important, then that person would not be capable of rousing himself to pursue any goals or to fight injustice or to preserve his own freedom. How can we fight terrorism if we start thinking that way? I would ask (thus elevating my ego-needs to the rank of national security concerns).
I misunderstood the situation. Seeing life as a game does not mean we don't take it seriously. When I was playing Monopoly or Yahtzee, I took it seriously; I strategized and calculated; I looked for every advantage; I wanted to win. But I also had fun, because I knew the outcome was not ultimately important. And because I could relax enough to have fun, I played better than if I had been treating the game with the utmost seriousness. Instead of being nervous and flustered, I was at ease and able to think clearly. Far from being an ordeal, the game was enjoyable.
Many people view their lives with the utmost seriousness, and as a result, their lives become a kind of ordeal -- an obstacle course they must navigate on a daily basis, a series of hazards they must avoid or overcome. They are stressed out, angry, agitated, anxiety-ridden, prone to making impulsive mistakes, to overreacting. They make themselves crazy. They make people around them crazy. Everything is a crisis. Every outcome is "Triumph or Disaster." Everything matters, and matters so much! Their lives could be less of an ordeal and more enjoyable -- and probably more successful, too -- if they stopped behaving like tortured characters in a Wagnerian opera, and saw themselves as kids playing Monopoly.
In fact, most people do learn to do this, but they learn it rather late. Surveys and studies consistently show that people, on average, become happier as they get older. Senior citizens are the happiest of all age groups, while teenagers are the least happy. The reason seems to be that as people get older, they learn that few setbacks are permanent and few successes really matter. They learn to take things as they come and not to be suckered into overdramatizing every fluctuation of their fortune. For younger people, life is more like a roller coaster, with dizzying highs and terrifying lows. For older people, the highs and lows smooth out, and the ride becomes less exhilarating, perhaps, but far more pleasant.
George Bernard Shaw famously said that youth is wasted on the young. What he meant is that we would benefit immensely if, in our youth, we were granted the perspective that comes with age. But actually that perspective can be ours at any time. We need only play the game of life the same way we played the game of Life, back when games were fun.