UnWisdom: Confessions Of A Zero-Sum Gamer

When I was a senior in high school, I won an award I never even knew I was being considered for. If you haven’t been there, I’m not sure how to describe such a bizarre feeling. A teacher hands you an award, in this case an obviously-plastic book covered in gold leaf floating in a small block of lucite, labeled “The Xerox Award for…”

You know, I can’t even remember. Obviously, it was one of the defining moments in my life. And I scratched my head, trying to figure out why. I don’t think she ever really told me what I’d done to earn this award. Scored high on tests and achieved good grades, as far as I can see. You know — general all around awesomeness. It came with a small scholarship. A few hundred dollars.

I didn’t get it then, but that moment really was  a defining moment in my life. I vaguely wondered then if there was some other kid that had actually tried to win that award. For whom it had a real meaning. Who actually cared about it, had worked for it, and now was sitting there wondering why he or she hadn’t measured up to me. I still wonder about that, obviously, or you wouldn’t be reading this. But mostly, back then, I took it as my due. I was very good, then, at winning things.

I was a National Merit Scholar. My education was paid for by my own determination to be the loyal Son of Academia. If my peers called me a nerd (which was not at all cool in the eighties, but that’s a different story) and cast me out of all cliques of friendship? I would damn them and work twice as hard. Because I wasn’t just good enough and smart enough. No, fuck that: I was better,  I was smarter, and if people hated me, then who fucking cared? Because I was better than all of them.

As you have no doubt guessed, I was kind of an asshole. But I was a competitive asshole.

I was naturally good at the zero-sum game. A zero-sum game, for those who might not know, is a game in which the person who wins does so at the expense of the person who loses. For me to win, you must lose. Sports work this way. My W is your L. So do most games that make people hate each other: Risk. Monopoly. I chose to obey the rules, because they were good for me. Because I could succeed on the terms set for me by authority. Be better than others. It was easy for me to “win.” And yes, it’s been a blessing; I won’t lie. I’m not looking for sympathy from people whose college was paid for by parents (and yes, mine helped me out when the scholarship money wasn’t enough, too), or crushing amounts of debt, or a spouse, or a sleep-stealing part-time job. It was a good thing on many levels.

But what I learned from that was that I had worth because I won. I tied my self-worth to winning. Chained myself to it. “Link by link, I girded it on, and link by link I wore it,” in the words of Marley’s tired old ghost. Worse, I won so easily that I did not know how I won. I put little effort into doing it. It just was. When I tried things, I tended to win. Every victory was another validation of my greatness.

Until I began to lose.

The lows were as low as the highs had been high. I got out of graduate school, which I had attended with another full-ride fellowship I never really understood how I won, (GRE test scores, my friends!) and stopped winning. The reason is no doubt obvious to you. Because in the real world, no one sets the goals for you. In the real world, there aren’t tests, except can I convince someone to pay for this? Am I good enough to get people’s attention?

Of course I wasn’t. I hadn’t had to sell myself, and I hadn’t had to make friends. So I sucked at both those things. When I pursued my real dream, that of writing science-fiction and fantasy (nerd, remember?), I had no idea how to do it. So I wrote badly, alienated the few writers I did meet (asshole, remember?) or lost touch with them, and met rejection after rejection.

But I kept plugging away at it, because I didn’t know what else to do. And I was having a little success. A very little. I was better than the others in my writing group, anyway, and that was something, right? And we were all getting better. All three of us got stories into the final round of an anthology that was the most prestigious market any of us had ever been considered for (very little success, remember?).

They got in. I didn’t. And that, small as it was, was devastating. Because now I was worthless. All my life, I had tied my worth to my success. To being better than. And now I was worse than. The highs had been exaltingly high. But now, that life — the only life I had ever known — was over. I was a failure, and since that was what I was rather than a result of what I was doing, it meant hopelessness. It meant damnation. I stopped writing. What was the point? I was no good. I couldn’t talk to these people any more. I was shamed before them.

It took a long time to dig out of that crash. It took friends and mentors and counselors all helping me shovel the enormous pile of bullshit I had stuck myself in. And to be clear: the fact I was stuck there was my responsibility. No one else’s. Digging out of it meant getting through a lot of anger and resentment as I was forced to look up at people who were now more successful — and, in my twisted world, therefore better — than me.

One of the things that pissed me off the most in those days, were the gracious people. Those incredibly condescending, gracious people, who kept saying how happy they were when others succeeded, because writing isn’t a zero-sum game.  They loved it when other people did well. I dismissed these people as liars. After all, of course writing is a zero-sum game. If you get into the anthology or the magazine, I don’t, because there’s limited space. Besides which, the people saying this were the ones who were succeeding. They’re like the rich guys saying “money isn’t everything.”  Only then I remembered something. My writing group, those people who had dared become better writers than me? (And they still are, by the way, much better writers than me; they didn’t quit in sulky rage). They didn’t play the zero-sum game. They didn’t look at the world as an arena. And though I doubt that either of them will read this post, I will take this time to apologize to them. I am truly sorry for my unfriend-like behavior and disrespect.

It wasn’t, as I had told myself, that successful people could afford to play the zero-sum game. It was that people who didn’t play the zero-sum game could afford to fail. And the failure that they accepted, learned from, and capitalized on became success. I, who could not tolerate losing, had damaged my own soul, incredibly. Because I could not love, could not befriend, and could not learn unless I was winning. Could not tolerate even looking at my failure long enough to learn from it. And that was true foolishness.

Because really, I should have known. I should have at least trusted in the words of my own faith, which teaches us that our worth is in things like kindness, patience, self-control, goodness, love, joy, and peace (Galatians 5:22-23). That should have been enough for me to know that worth does not depend on what I make other people do, still less upon defeating them. The cost to me in friends lost and opportunities missed and lessons unlearned is beyond numbering. Doubtless, many of you reading this feel that I am an idiot. Well, I was. Perhaps you feel any good person ought to know all these things already. Perhaps you were fortunate enough to learn these lessons at a much earlier age, from better teachers. Well done. I can only learn from where I am.

So why am I writing this? For pity? No, I neither deserve nor need that. You see, I’ve learned better. I am becoming better. No, I’m writing this in the hope that someone who reads this will need to read it. That people out there who can’t sell a story, or can’t land a job in their fields, or can’t find romance will listen, as I did not. Will see that they are not irrevocably flawed, so long as they can practice virtue.

Also, since followers of Christ should know this better than others, I leave a warning to my own Church. I see far too much, at this present time, about the Church “winning” or “losing,” especially in politics and culture. Our victory is not over flesh and blood. It is already won by Christ our founder. Our faith is no zero-sum game. And as long as we can love our enemies, we can never lose.

From Somewhere In Orbit

Popular UnWisdom #2: No Better Than They Are

“If you kill people to show that killing is wrong, you are no better than they are.”


I don’t have any sort of research for this quote. I have found no source for it, but I hardly think one is necessary. Variants on “killing” include “hitting” or “doing violence.” I have heard it all my life, and I imagine that most of my audience has heard it likewise. It is frequently found on the placards and in the mouths of mothers, elementary school teachers, and activists who oppose war and the death penalty.

It’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

Let’s just examine this a little bit more closely, shall we? The death penalty is wrong because killing makes us, as a society, morally equivalent to the killers. Ah, yes, of course. That makes perfect sense. Then what, exactly, does that make our society when we lock people in prison for kidnapping? Doesn’t it make us kidnappers? What if we fine them for committing theft? Doesn’t that make us thieves? And why does the punishment have to fit the crime? If the proverb above holds, then it seems we have built a society in which justice has been confused with kidnapping people and stealing from them.

And, by the way, why do we not draw that parallel? Why is killing criminals wrong, while kidnapping them is not?

I begin to suspect that most of the moral outrage that purports to equate execution to vengeance really has very little to do with morality. Instead, it simply has to do with squeamishness, as evidenced in the debate over the death penalty itself. Dr. Jay Chapman, one of the inventors of the mix of drugs which until recently were used for lethal injection, has since repudiated his own invention, saying that the guillotine would be more humane. So why don’t we use it?

Because it would be messy. It would be ugly. We would not be able to hide behind the notion that we could clean up death. And we might have to face the fact that we live in a world where sometimes, we can’t clean it up.

It’s not that we don’t want to kill, it’s that we don’t want to deal with the mess. Or why else was there so much outrage over the way a giraffe in Denmark was recently killed? It was shot through the head, which is one of the less painful ways to go that I can imagine. And yet, some asked why the animal wasn’t euthanized by using drugs, (which of course, would have made its meat useless for consumption by the zoo’s large cats). Could it be that people were outraged simply because guns draw blood? Because that method of killing is ugly?

I have probably left some people under the impression that I am pro-death-penalty and even pro-violence. Actually, I am neither. You see, there are a host of good reasons to be against the use of the death penalty. Right now I’m against it for two reasons: Firstly, the probability of executing an innocent man under our present laws is just too high. Secondly, it seems that judges and juries have a nasty habit of condemning minorities to death at a disproportionately high rate.

But neither of those reasons is the same as making a false equivalence between a murder by individual whim and an execution by the rule of law. The difference is profound: Criminals inflict random violence on random victims. Juries and judges are supposed to inflict it after deliberation and reasoned judgment, and to do so on those who are aware that their punishment is deserved, or at least that such punishment a likely result of their own actions. It is the process, and the limits on that process, that makes all the difference. To us, this is vital. If we do not understand it — if we confuse all punishment with vengeance, and all law with whim — then we approach a mindset in which the very idea of a civil justice system is impossible. And that’s what we built to avoid being murdered by criminals.

Most crime involves the criminals inflicting some form of pain on the victims, whether that is physical, social, or financial pain. And in all the justice systems I know of, justice involves some form of society inflicting some form of pain on the criminal, as a deterrent and/or a means of protecting society from the criminal. Of course, it would be preferable to simply persuade the criminal to repent and make restitution, but few criminals will do this. And on what basis do we say that, for example, Singaporean caning is torture while American solitary confinement for years on end (and this is done) is not? The problem is not that our consciences are strong. The problem is that our stomachs are weak.

Now, I’m just waiting for someone to point out that judges and juries can and do make mistakes, or act out of fear or vengeance and therefore, my argument here is invalid. And that misses the point entirely, of course. It’s a true observation, but it’s not a counterargument. Depending on the venue, it may be a completely separate argument against the death penalty. But it’s not the same as saying that punishment is the same as vengeance, and that’s the real danger. That way lies anarchy.

From somewhere in orbit

Popular UnWisdom #1: What the Good Man Doesn’t

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

John F. Kennedy Edmund Burke Charles F. Aked Every Activist on The Internet.

The above quote, which has no verified source, but seems to me most likely to have originally come from John Stuart Mill, has been driven at me so often and so hard that I am beginning to flinch every time I see it headed my way: the overloaded hitch-trailer of indignation pulled by the immaculately buffed car of self-righteousness. It tends to dangle from the end of pleas, or worse, demands, that I join the caravan of this champion of justice, or be an agent in the triumph of Evil.

Well, I really can’t afford either the Saville Row suits or the traditional black leather that comprise the current Agents of Evil dress code, so I’m not a fan of being relegated to their ranks. But the popular wisdom that has been misattributing this quote to Edmund Burke for the last hundred years is hard to refute, yes? I mean, Hitler could have been fought at the gates of Prague rather than at the gates of Moscow if Chamberlain and Daladier had just stood up to him, yes? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. You can find countless anecdotes throughout history in which this is true. If only the good men had stood up to the evil when it was small, how great the past would be.

And it’s all complete and utter balderdash.

Let’s look very carefully at what the users of this argument are asking us to accept without any examination on our part here. Firstly, they want us to accept that what they are fighting against is evil. Note that this is an entirely different proposition than the idea that what they themselves are doing is good. Good people want us to join them in building up what is good. The proponents of this aphorism want us to join them in a crusade against Evil. Do we remember that the Crusades themselves were launched more or less on this very principle? Do we remember what we think of the Crusaders, and the Popes who unleashed them against the “evil” of Saracen occupation of the Holy Land (land the Saracens and their predecessors did, of course, conquer themselves). For a more modern example, however, we can turn to something a bit less extreme, but damaging enough:

“The earliest known citation showing a strong similarity to the modern quote appeared in October of 1916. The researcher J. L. Bell found this important instance. The maxim appeared in a quotation from a speech by the Reverend Charles F. Aked who was calling for restrictions on the use of alcohol [SFCA]” (O’Toole).

And we all remember what a rousing success Prohibition was, right? How many lives were saved because “good men” stood up and fought the evils of drink, yes? Would it not be wise to remember that much evil, if not more, has been done by “good men” who stood up and acted without seriously considering what evils they themselves might be tempted to, driven to, or simply accidentally unleash in the name of their crusade?

But let us say that we have considered it, and the target of the cause is indeed evil. The warriors of righteousness are fighting Hitler, or his moral equivalent. Those people exist; I’m not a moral relativist. But now look at what they go on to say, and this is the real issue I have with those driving this particular load of guilt around. Their fight is so important, that they get to draft us into supporting their fight. We are either for them, or against them. We will either speak up every time they want us to, at the volume and pitch they want us to, or we are not their friend. We are not their ally. We are instead their oppressor and their enemy. Well, I think that’s sad, because many of these people I like, but the cost of that friendship is just too high.

Because the real statement here, and it’s fairly insulting if you think about it, is that they get to choose for me what my moral energy goes into fighting.   And that is one thing that no one should get to do besides God and me, in that order. The people making this statement do not want allies. Because allies have a voice in what you say, what you do, and how you say and do it. They have an interest in your success, and you have one in theirs. What these people want in you is not an ally. The word we’re looking for here is “subordinate.”

“But, Scott,” I hear you say in the comments (assuming you, like me, are the kind of jerk who throws Hitler into every argument), “Are you saying that there’s nothing everyone is obligated to fight? Wouldn’t every good person have been obligated to join the fight against Hitler?”

Leaving aside for the moment that there were many who considered themselves good who didn’t join that fight (I’m not a pacifist, either), I do agree that there are some extremes in which one must act, indeed must act instantly and violently, against evil (and if you’re waiting for an exhaustive catalogue of such things here, good luck to you), but they are for most of us, rare. I don’t know how I would act when presented with one of them. I hope I would act honorably, but I distrust those who are sure before they’ve been tested. Octavia Butler once said in my presence, “Hitlers are rare. That’s one of the reasons they are so popular.” But while I’ve heard a lot of people try to enlist me in their cause by claiming their opponents are fascists, I’ve yet to agree with that assessment.

Of course, some of you are seething by now, because you’re sitting here saying, “Sure, Scott, you can talk, but those ‘rare situations’ are my LIFE! I’m one of the victims of this injustice you say you don’t want to spend your precious ‘moral energy’ on.” Okay, let me slow down and answer that one with utter, dead seriousness and respect.

I’m sorry. Truly, I am. And if there’s a specific thing you want me to do for you, personally, you contact me and ask, and I’ll do what I can to help you. Your pain is not meaningless. Your pain is real. I’ve been the victim too (and if it’s ever relevant in this blog, I may even tell you of what) and it sucks. And I was fortunate enough to have people to help me.

But I’m not going to pick up your banner for you. I’m not going to devote my life to your cause because you threaten to disrespect me for that or call me names. I have my own causes that I champion, my own callings to help the less fortunate that I follow. And neither you nor anyone else has the right to override that and call on my aid for your cause to the exclusion of the others unless you can demonstrate a clear, immediate, and overriding threat. We live in a world overflowing with injustice. We’re up to our eyeballs in it, and the stink of it is in our nostrils to the point it’s sometimes hard to distinguish it anymore. I’ll fight the injustice with you, but understand it may not be the exact injustice you’re most committed to. And that’s for the simple reason that my pain is not your pain. And we should respect each other’s pain, not fight over whose is worse, and whose need is greatest. Someday, God willing, we’ll meet up on the same side.

From somewhere in orbit