Can’t Be Won, Just Played

Buchart Gardens - photo by Mary Dessein
Buchart Gardens – photo by Mary Dessein

How would you like to have Jack Lemmon telling you a story? A doozy of a story at that? A Steven Pressfield story.

“It’s a game that can’t be won, only played.”

Jack’s seventy-six year old voice, filled with wisdom and humor, recounting the lessons he’d learned about dignity, the appearance of it, and which of those two actually has value; the lessons he learned watching a man not only look for his authenticity, but to regain belief that such a thing exists. Jack’s voice resonating with a kindness and acceptance that only comes with facing fears over and over, surviving losses over and over, and then standing back up in order to keep on walking.

To find one’s authenticity in part requires that you get out of the way and let it surface. Robert Fulghum wrote about the time he saw a bumper sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think,” which set him off on a creative, introspective tangent about the truth in that statement as he reviewed his life.

I can relate. Times my brain told me to do one thing, seemingly logical and allegedly most efficient, while my authentic self, call it intuition or gut feeling, urged me to do something else. It seemed safer to believe what I thought rather than what I felt.
A significant factor, beyond my perception then, was that my brain is in cahoots with my ego. Of course, I did what my brain told me. I believed it. Was it that I wanted to look smart, appear competent, or to be right? Surely part of the equation. Just as surely, I got in my own way and had no clue I was the impediment, the derailer, the creator of the negative result, not random chance or bad luck.

True self versus ego, eh? Thinking my way through my out-of-balance checkbook register works well. Thinking my way through the conundrum of how to respond to a colleague’s ongoing rudeness or to a friend’s loss of a parent, not so much.

Jack, as his character Hardy Greaves, recalls the conversation six decades before between Rannulph Junuh and Bagger Vance.
“You don’t understand,” Junuh spouted back to Bagger’s advice.
“I don’t need to understand. Ain’t a soul who ain’t got a burden to carry he don’t understand. You ain’t alone in that.”

He responded, “I don’t need to understand,” because he understood a bigger, all encompassing truth?

Being told, “You don’t understand,” has shut the door on many things in my life, as I believed that a high level of understanding was the pivot that mattered. Assuredly, sometimes it does. Yet we come across the bigger truths which “You don’t understand” keeps us from seeing when we are locked in the belief that we are alone. The mistaken belief that our individual circumstances, feelings, fears, sorrows, mistakes, tragedies have to be understood exactly. That they have to be experienced by someone else so they know what we’re going through.

What difference might that realization have made when as an alcohol and other drug counselor, clients said to me, and to other counselors, “You have to be an addict to be able to help me.” Their idea that they were special and therefore alone? There is a phrase for that, ‘terminal uniqueness.’ I remember one lanky sixteen year old in particular, ambling up to me after I had spoken to a group of high schoolers about drug abuse, with his baseball cap pulled low over his face, sporting a whisper of a wannabe mustache, long arms dangling out of his off-white denim jacket, and stating it as if this were E = MC squared, he said, “You can’t help me unless you’re in recovery.” Did that allow him to keep using because no one was qualified to help him? A whole ‘nother discussion.

Over time, without divulging my personal history as that was a clear professional boundary, my response became, “Why is that? We don’t require gynecologists to be female, marriage counselors to be divorced, oncologists to have cancer, or judges to have been incarcerated. Why does a drug counselor have to have been addicted?” Sometimes, they would stop and go, “Oh.” Other times, they blew me off with the classic, “You don’t understand,” alas, shutting their door to the invite of change.

What a concept: I don’t have to understand your exact experience and feelings to be here with you, recognize what you’re going through, and support you.
You don’t have to understand my exact experience and feelings to be here with me, recognize what I’m going through, and support me.

“Time for you to choose.”
“I can’t,” Junuh shook his head at Bagger.
“You can. You ain’t alone. I’m right here with you. I been here all along. Now play the game.”

You are not alone.
Neither am I. If I am silent and still, my authentic self will speak, whether quietly or with a charge of adrenaline.

“It’s a game that can’t be won, only played. So I play.”
Thank you, Steven.