Games we play

Having reached the age of 40, I feel ever more acutely the need to be a mature adult. That may sound like an obvious – and long-overdue – obligation, but for me, it’s not that simple. Against many of society’s standards of maturity I often judge myself to be immature. This judgement induces me to feel shame: if I am at the age of maturity, then I should be mature (by these standards); if I am not, something must be wrong with me; if something is wrong with me, then I am bad. If I am bad, then I should fix myself and become good. If I am good, then I can love myself, and others can love me. This is the primitive logic of shame.

One of the many complaints made against narcissistic and sociopathic adults is that they are like children. They don’t act right. They don’t treat people right. Like an undisciplined child, they act entitled, demand and extort what they want, and trample over people’s boundaries. When I read about narcissism and sociopathy, I see aspects of myself in the descriptions, and this makes me feel ashamed. It leaves me feeling very bad. Oof!

Narcissists in particular are often called ‘eternal children’, and not as a term of endearment. They don’t ever really ‘grow up’ in some ways because due to trauma, they get stuck in early stages of emotional, psychological, and interpersonal development. The psychic scar tissue formed around their trauma site prevented the healthy development of their separate selfhood. As Daniel Shaw writes in his book Traumatic Narcissism: relational systems of subjugation (2014), “the central trauma in the genesis of narcissism is chronic, insufficiently repaired failures on the part of the caregivers to support the developing child’s needs for recognition as a separate subject (3)”. Shaw quotes an E. Ghent who wonders whether:

the roots of clinical narcissism lie in some failure to integrate adequately the mode of intersubjective relatedness…either because the significant others were misattuned, underattuned or unpredictably attuned to this mode of relating. Could it be that people we encounter as patients may, despite being highly experienced in intellectual discourse or sexual conjunction, nonetheless feel like frightened virgins when it comes to encountering this area of deeply longed for, yet warded off, intersubjectivity? (2-3)

Healthy intersubjective relationships can only occur, logically enough, between two or more subjects, or persons. Young people naturally have to go through a prolonged process of forming a separate subjectivity. It’s a delicate yet resilient unfolding that is vulnerable to damages and distortions of all sorts. Human beings aren’t born as fully formed ‘selves’; they must become themselves. Unfortunately, during these vulnerable stages, many children experience stresses and distresses that hinder their development or nearly destroy it.

A case in point: Donald Trump, the current US president. His niece, Mary L. Trump, has just released a book called Too Much and Never Enough which reveals the traumatic family history and environment that produced the kind of narcissistic, sociopathic man that Trump has proven to be. She writes: “Every time you hear Donald talking about how something is the greatest, the best, the biggest, the most tremendous (the implication being that he made them so), you have to remember that the man speaking is still, in essential ways, the same little boy who is desperately worried that he, like his older brother, is inadequate and the he, too, will be destroyed for his inadequacy [italics added] (202).” Mary Trump calls her uncle ‘the world’s most dangerous man’ because a man with a wounded boy’s impulses and without a mature man’s self-awareness and self-control is a serious threat to the the subjectivity of others.

The same little boy – that’s often how I often feel about myself. People react to my boyishness in different ways. To some, it can be cute and endearing. To others, it’s downright creepy and unsettling. The shame I feel when my childlikeness (or childishness, depending on how you look at it!) threatens others has led me to think a lot about what it means to be an adult, to be mature. What is the proper relationship between our inner child and our adult selves? What is the place of childlikeness/childishness in the life of a grown human being?

I’m still looking for answers.

Jesus is recorded as saying this on the topic: “Truly…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3).” What exactly was Jesus advocating here? Was he a grandiose narcissist justifying his own childish delusions of grandeur by spiritualizing them? (Sam Vakhnin, a leading expert on narcissism, would probably say so!) Why would it be desirable for adults to become like little children?

Here is my answer, in short: children play the game of life…and so should we.

Children play, and we adults often…usually…forget how to play when we supposedly ‘grow up’. Mature people know when to be ‘serious’ and when to ‘take things seriously’. But the play of children is not opposed to seriousness. No, children are serious about their playing and playful about the supposed seriousness of the absurd life they are unwittingly born into. For kids, play and ‘real life’, or playfulness and seriousness, are not in opposition. They get it: they know their games are games, but that knowledge makes their games no less ‘real’ or ‘serious’ than what adults are always going on about. The difference between the playful seriousness of an innocent child and the somber seriousness of adults is the difference between a seriousness grounded in love and a seriousness grounded in fear.

To children lucky enough to feel safe, loved, and cared for, life is play and play is life.

They are right, in my view:

Life is a play of forms and forces.

Playing is participating in a game. And what is a game? From a philosophical perspective, a game is a self-contained ‘world’ or ‘reality’ in which a set of laws or rules govern the movements of energy. Obviously, this is a very broad definition, and it’s meant to cover basically everything in the universe and the universe itself as a whole. Everything is a game. The Cosmos is a game. Our solar system is a game. Our planetary life is a game. You are a game unto yourself, as am I. All our relationships are games. Our bodies are games. Politics is a game. Religions are games. Nations are games. Sports are games (duh). Philosophies, scientific theories, ideologies, languages, cultures, ecosystems, mathematical systems, weather, and so on.

The definition above – you might say – is so broad that the word ‘game’ loses its meaning altogether. It’s certainly not the normal usage of ‘game’ in English. Fair enough. More typically, a game is understood as a thing or event that involves the following: 1) an understanding that what is played is ‘just a game’ (not ‘real life’), 2) a created and negotiated set of rules, 3) penalties for breaking the rules and/or rewards for following them, 4) players (one or more), 5) criteria for ‘winning’ or ‘losing’, 6) the intention and/or experience of having ‘fun’ (joy, excitement, competition, camaraderie, solidarity, success, victory, etc.), and…6) playing. What I’ve just described is, I would say, the human cultural manifestation of a universal phenomenon that operates at all levels of existence.

But what is ‘playing’? I’ll define playing as willingly submitting oneself to a set of rules and surrendering oneself to the flow of energy within those rules.

Okay, so how is everything a game? Consider an ecosystem. Every ecosystem has players (species of life) that interact according to set of genetic, biotic, and ecoic laws that govern their interactions. Some species are winners and some are losers. Some species more or less follow the rules, while others may break them from time to time. All species, presumably, are ‘in it’ for the ‘fun of it’, that is, they are quite literally expressions of the exuberant Spirit (energy) of Life. Perhaps not conscious of it, the species strive for optimal vitality and vivaciousness. And most poignantly of all, the species ‘play’ the ‘game’ in that they naturally follow the laws of their instinct which channel the flow of their dynamic aliveness.

Next, consider a soul. Every human soul has ‘players’, that is, different parts, aspects, and sub-personalities. In the game of being a soul, there are genetic and neuro-psychological rules to be followed. Some of the ‘players’ follow the rules dutifully, while other break them occasionally. When all players are following the rules, the soul-game gets on quite well. When one or more players acts unruly, the game might be interrupted. Some players are winners, others losers. They may win today and lose tomorrow. Conscious or unconscious, all players in this game are striving to be on the winning team. And when the players have found a set of rules they agree on, and when they are following the rules, they can truly be ‘at play’ or in a ‘flow state’: submitted to the rules and surrendered to the dynamism.

Next, consider a language. A language grammar is an intricate set of rules that govern the expression of cognitive intention and vocal energy. It is a complicated game with many players playing with or against each other at one level and interacting with players at other levels. There are rules governing their ‘play’ at each level and between all levels. Obviously a speaker of a language can accidentally or deliberately break the rules of the language, but the language itself – by some kind of intrinsic playful spontaneity – can induce ‘errors’ which, on some occasions ‘stick’ and trigger a series of rule-changes throughout the system that eventually settle again into an equilibrium. Even though the parts of a language grammar are unconscious, it is as if each phoneme, morpheme, word, phrase, etc. possesses a modicum of intrinsic self-determination and rudimentary tendency toward self-perpetuation and success of existence. In other words, each playing part wishes to ‘enjoy’ its life and win in the game of languagehood. And we all know what it’s like when the players in the game of our language get in the flow. We experience every time we talk or write!

How do games become ‘less fun’? When do they lapse into being mere ‘systems’ or ‘procedures’ or just plain old ‘work’? Recall that a game is a phenomenon that emerges when a set of rules/laws governs the movements of energy, and that playing is submitting to the rules and surrendering to the energy. Games break down when the relationship between rules and energy gets out of balance. When the rules are overemphasized, the energy is squelched. When the rules are underemphasized, the energy becomes chaotic. When too much energy arises, it overwhelms the rules. And when the energy tapers off, the weight of the rules caps the fountain. A ‘fun’ game is thus a game in which law and life-energy are in optimal tension. This is a delicate balance to achieve and maintain.

With the above discussion as a philosophical background, I now return to the question of how childlikeness and adulthood might be related in a healthy person. Looking at my own self-development in this area, I can see at least the following two strands woven together:

First, I did experience some developmental stresses and distresses that retarded the growth of my sense of a separate self. For example, being subjected to religious indoctrination imposed a heavy set of laws and rules specifically designed to suppress my life-energy (expressed in curiosity, emotionality, and sexuality). The ‘game’ of being a separate subject and being in intersubjective relationships was compromised in some areas because the set of rules I had to play by outweighed my available libidinous (in a Freudian sense) energy.

Another example: learning the game of linguistic and cultural identity was interrupted when my family moved to East Africa. I was six years old. Just when I would be entering the phase of development when my mother-tongue and home culture would be solidifying, I was thrust into a foreign language and culture. This move broke the ‘ice’ that was forming on top of the water of my languaged selfhood. It shattered the incipient solidity that I would have experienced as a monolingual, monocultural, and monoreligious young person. Even though I’m glad it happened, there is definitely a certain sense of violence about it.

Second, within my family I did also enjoy a degree of love, safety, and belonging that allowed me to be a child and to really play. As an historical accident, my upbringing didn’t require me to work too early or too much as a child. My father’s jobs were in spiritual ministry and communication, and my mother was, for the most part, at home with us children. My childhood was full of the time and space to play to my heart’s content. Moreover, Mother home-schooled me and my siblings for many years. Being at home for all of the earliest formative years sheltered me (or prevented me – depending on how you look at it) from learning the rules of the game of the dominant American culture(s). In place of playing that game, I was taught to play the game of Mennonite religion and culture.

A friend once gave me what was perhaps an ambiguous assessment when he said I have a mind that has not ‘hardened’. With this metaphor of hardness, we now come full circle in our exploration: it is my argument that in the standard judgement, being a ‘mature’ adult is to have one’s mind hardened. What does it mean to have a hardened mind? In the normal, unimpeded, natural unfolding of a human person, the following happens: A child learns the rules of their family, culture, language, religion, worldview, society, nation/tribe, etc. through a process of reward, punishment, observation, and emulation, and so on. The child is thus programmed in a way that the body, the emotions, the mental concepts and categories, and the overall behavioral patterns or more or less coordinated and integrated. In short, the whole person is programmed to function in their local region and society. This is natural and normal and has been happening for hundreds of thousands of years.

Around the age of 9-12, the child begins to shed the infinite programmability it was born with and begins to ‘harden’ into the finite set of beliefs and behaviors selected by the environment. This is well and good since it prepares the child to play the game and to play well with others. Other players in the game will instantly recognize the child as a fellow player. They will recognize the child on the basis of the shared rules they follow and the shared intensity of energy allowed by those rules. There will be a sense of familiality and familiarity between them. This is ideal, since the child and the others will be playing this game together for a long time. These fellow players tend not to break the rules of the game because doing so elicits an intense negative response from the nervous system that feels like fear, guilt, shame, or conscience, as well as an intense negative response from other players and the referees that feels like condemnation, punishment, retribution, ostracization, etc. As long as everyone plays by the rules, the game can move along nicely. People can and do get into the FLOW of their native language, culture, and society.

In my case, I experienced both a thorough and successful programming and a ‘split hard-drive’ condition that came from cross-cultural exposure at a young age. So, paradoxically, I learned to play my wonderful game of existence really well and then, at a tender age, inadvertently learned that it was in the end only one game among many. For example, in the games of language, I learned that The English Game is not Reality for me because I know and have played the Swahili Game, the French Game, the Russian Game, the Ik Game, etc. In the games of culture, I learned that the American Game is not Reality for me because I know and have played the Tanzanian Game, the Kazakh Game, the Ugandan Game, etc. As I moved through my teenage years, the Mennonite Game of Christianity moved from ‘real world’ status to ‘game’ status as I learned to play the Baptist Game, the Pentecostal Game, and other Christian Games. And finally, starting in seminary and then stretching on into my years in Uganda, the Biblical world and worldview I thought was in fact the ‘real world’ was shown to me to be yet another game among the many religious games we play.

I am childlike in a way that often seems inappropriate because I am not committed to these games like an ‘adult’ normally would be. A normal adult would have ‘hardened’ – narrowed the choices for ‘reality’ – following a predictable process of maturation within the culture. His or her hardware and software would be fused into a smoothly running operating system in a network of other identical computers. However, my hardware and software are not fused. The hardware of my embodied nervous system and the software of my cognitively-held beliefs are out of sync. Just as being a childish adult is inappropriate, and trying to run Windows applications on a Mac is clunky, having a nervous system unintegrated with the conscious mind is very awkward indeed. And I think it must be painful. I think I must have started numbing myself to the pain early on, perhaps with that first move to Africa.

As humans, we are designed with hardware (socially embedded nervous systems) that is supposed to be programmed with socially sanctioned and reinforced cultural software. They are meant to seamlessly co-evolve throughout childhood. This co-evolution was, for me, interrupted in the domains of language and culture early on and then in the domains of religion and worldview later in young adulthood. I have suffered from this. It has gifted me too, no doubt, in certain ways. For example, I have a superior ability to learn a new language quickly…but mostly as a cognitive system. The deeper learning of language that starts to embed it socially and embody it somatically – these lessons I run from as soon as they begin to arrive. That is why I am a world-class descriptive linguist but a sorry anthropologist!

I learn to play new games quickly, but I don’t play them for long. Why not? On the one hand, I believe I fear the game will end without warning and without my control. That was devastating as a child and as an adult. On the other hand, learning to play a new game successfully is also a dopamine high: it feels amazing to succeed in a high-stakes poker game! Am I destined, then, to bounce from one language to another, one religion to another, one identity to another, one relationship to another for the rest of my life?

Humans play games because we are born in a game-playing universe. It’s what we do. Narcissists like Donald Trump found the Game of Life so destructive in childhood that they had no recourse but to play their own game, a game of their own making in which other people are not players but mere objects. In such games, there is only one player: the narcissist. “For the developing child,” writes Shaw, “the absence of recognition as a separate self is felt as the presence of negation” (7), … “[and] the trauma of unrecognition could lead one to desperately seek connection through subjugation, and self-objectification; or unrecognition could lead one to hyper-idealize oneself and hold others in contempt” (9).

To be a healthy adult is to balance and integrate all one’s parts. It means to consciously decide on the rules I want to play in the Game of Selfhood and the kind of rules I’ll negotiate in the Game of Relationships. As I stand now, perhaps I embody both the endearing child with infinite creative possibilities and the creepy adult who doesn’t play by the rules. I’m okay with that now. I know what’s happening and I know where I’m going. Like a narcissist, I must play a game and I know how to dream up a fantastic game for me to play, but unlike a narcissist, I also know how to negotiate rules with others and together with them, make the kind of game we all want to play. In fact, I have been given a unique opportunity to create my self anew, co-create the relationships I will share, and manifest a dream of love.

My mind is not hardened. Therein lies my gift: I can change my mind as often as I’d like. I am a shapeshifter, a translator, a revolutionary, a wizard. I can make new games to play till the cows come home. But all the same, I have reached the limits of this capacity, the edges of this gift’s endowments. The mute pain of this suffering has finally broke through and found some expression (and much more is to come). Henceforth, I will be forging intimacy with myself, building connection between my brain and my body. Maybe that way I’ll get to experience a bit more of the security and stability that comes from having a ‘hardened’ mind. Yet I’ll always know that whatever games I create and play, they’re just games: their rules can be rewritten and renegotiated; their players can come and go. It’s all play.

Life is a game, and we are here to play.

Being like a child, Jesus said, is needed to enter the kingdom of heaven. In what ways have you stopped being like a child, lost your innocent playfulness and grown too ponderous? Healthy children aren’t anxious. They’re curious. They aren’t serious. They’re playful.

Whatever games you’re playing, remember, they’re just games. And saying that doesn’t mean they aren’t serious…they are serious in the way playing is serious to children. What in your life do you have a death-grip on? What could take a little more lightly? Your ego? It’s a game among many games. Your religion? It’s a game among many games. Your career? It’s a game among many games. Your relationship or relationship style/structure? It’s a game among many games. Your native language? It’s a game among many games. Your nationality or political party or sports team? All games among many games. They’re to be played.

Human beings are game-makers and game-players. Our worlds are games and our games are worlds. You can be a conscious creator/creatrix of worlds. Who made the games you’re playing right now? Did you? Did someone else? Did someone tell you that God made them? Who made the worlds you inhabit right now? Did you? Did someone else? Did someone tell you that God made them? It’s time to start stepping into your role as Maker and Player of Games! Make rules that match your life energy, and invite other players to join you! You never know: it might turn out that they’ve been wanting to play a New Game as well.

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