Maybe It Isn’t A Race?

It takes bravery to know your strengths and operate diligently within them. Are you running your race, or someone else’s?
#Quest2016 from Tracking Wonder Quest. Today’s prompt from Todd Henry, author of Die Empty.

Oooh. Ouch.

Let me take a sideways wander here, over into the land of board games. My family and many of my friends love playing complicated high end (mostly German) board games with complicated rules and bazillions of tiny pieces. They are all about optimizing, and there are very clear outcomes, points awarded for X, Y, Z and Q.

I am bad at these games. Or rather, the way that I enjoy playing (with) them is not the way that they are designed. I wind up (through a complicated set of interior narratives) being a sore loser, and have to limit how much and how often I play (also, I can only play with people who love me enough to forgive me.)

The problem with the board games is that I start out holding my own intentions (running my own race, as it were). Presented with a box full of tiny wooden animals, (plastic) rubies, fields, and rooms to build, I’m excited about the possibilities. Gleeful, you might even say. I resolve to enjoy the process, play with the pieces, and focus on building the cutest farm (with cuddle room for extra sheep). But the mechanics of the game kick in; I can’t get another sheep because somebody else scooped up all the wood and I have as many as I can keep without a fence. The game is designed to make you optimize something else, and trying to play some other way, I eventually fall so far behind that I can’t even keep myself from going into debt.

At this point, I concede my intention, focus back on the rules as prescribed, and, starting from way way behind, try to run the race I was assigned.

This is a recipe for misery.

My kids, on the other hand, get out the game and start playing. Actually playing: lining up the animals, making up stories, exchanging rubies as favours, refusing the premises and structures that make it a game. There is no need to prove who is smarter, more clever, faster at understanding how to optimize. There is plenty for everybody, and if you need one more donkey to make a square number, it will probably be provided on purely aesthetic grounds. Everybody loves a good symmetry, even if, for some bizarre reason, no games ever give points for symmetry.

(Why don’t games give points for symmetry? It’s one of my favourite things.)

Herein lies the problem. I define my own terms of success, but I remain acutely attuned to external markers. It is astonishingly difficult for me, who cares so keenly about feedback and group wisdom, to also hold my own values. I am conflicted, wanting to run my race, (assemble a cute farm, make interesting symmetries, have lots of donkeys (imaginary donkeys))… but panicking at the last moment, realizing that I have forgotten the point of it all.  As if somebody else, out there, has special insight that I should use to override my own desires, interests, and aesthetics. As if there were some objective point to life… and I’ve forgotten what it was.

(I would like to point out, as a final hand-waving, metaphorical position, that the game at the top of this post is actually co-operative, and the whole team either wins or loses. If you lose, an elder god eats the world. No pressure.)