When the Game Breaks Down


We often speak about life as a game. If we’re going to succeed or “win,” we have to have determination, zeal, a willingness to fight and prevail against all comers. But tucked into the corners of that metaphor is also the sense that human life in society is governed by artificial rules or expectations—the kind that you need to play a game. (War works this way, too. There are international rules and conventions for how to play this fearsome game.)

On Monday night I saw a striking incident where the artifice fell away and the “game” broke down.

I was watching a professional hockey match at Madison Square Garden, the New York Rangers squaring off against the Buffalo Sabres. They skated furiously, checked violently (smashing the opponent into the glass wall), and with muscle and grace sent the puck screaming like a rocket for the goal—and anyone in between. In the last period it happened. A player launched a slapshot from fifty feet out. The puck—a six-ounce hard black disc of vulcanized rubber—went airborne and crashed like a bullet into the face of a man standing between the shooter and the goal. He dropped like a rock to the ice, holding his head.

Immediately the crowd hushed (hockey crowds are bumptious, not easily quieted). It was a Sabre lying on the rink, but white and blue jerseys all converged. The Buffalo trainer rushed to give medical assistance. The skater soon rose to his feet and was led away, but there was blood all over the snow white ice. The man next to me said, “It always happens this way, doesn’t it. Suddenly all these guys know—this could be them, and they all band together as one.”

In that moment the game conventions broke down. The players couldn’t maintain the necessary distance between themselves and their opponent, couldn’t generate the will to win. The world saw this play out astonishingly on Christmas Day 1914 when, on the Western Front, British and German soldiers crossed into ‘no man’s land’ to celebrate as brothers. (What is too cruel to imagine is how those young men said good night to their brothers on Christmas Day, and woke the next morning in those hellish trenches to go back to the deathly game.)

Much of our lives are spent playing the game. It’s not possible to live in society without some governing conventions—rules, mostly unwritten and unspoken—for how we will live and work and marry and have children and all. But if we ever forget that it’s all a big game, our souls are in jeopardy.

Thankfully, life takes care of that for us. There are many events that are just like that scene on the hockey rink. Blood is shed, and suddenly we know who we are, what matters, what we must be about.

A brother or sister dies, and we wonder why we’ve spent so many years fighting and feuding in the big family game. A trusted colleague is fired—someone who was truly good and effective—fired for revenge or sport or to ‘send a message’, and we are sorry for all the effort and time and precious emotional energy we have invested in the big business game. A little child is sick—suddenly in the hospital—and now nothing else matters but love.

Life takes care of it for us, but only if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.







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