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

Put All The Gods Back In Schools: Why We Need Religious Education

What would you say if the school systems of the nation refused to teach children about a subject that affected the entire population of the world for all of known history, and has been used both as a motivation to liberate, persecute, build and destroy nations? Would you not justifiably wonder at the ignorance and cowardice of the institutions that are supposed to be teaching our children? And yet no one seems to question the fact that our public schools systems by and large do not teach about the religious beliefs around which (and sometimes in spite of which) the moral structures we build our society upon rest. We ignore them entirely, and as a result, students have almost no understanding of what religions have taught or do teach, and which inform the actions of millions within the nation and billions outside of it. The result of this is a citizenry that is incapable of putting together the most rudimentary theological statements. They can neither examine nor defend a religious position, nor comprehend a religious text. They think all religious statements are opinions, on the level of “I like strawberry ice cream,” or “I’m a Chicago Bears fan.” They do not understand that for many of their fellow Americans, let alone the people of the world, religious faith is a matter beside which matters of life and death dwindle into insignificance. And because of that, we are unable to relate to our fellow humans.

You see, whether you believe that the Bible (or the Koran, or the Bhagavad-gita, etc.) is the Word of the Lord to Mankind or whether you believe it is the biggest pile of bullshit ever delivered — and certainly whether you like it or not (as if the world cares) — religion is, long-term, one of the most  successful ideas in human history. There have been gods before there were nations, before there were states, possibly even before there were economies. This is why I don’t take anyone too seriously when they say that the death of religion is just around the corner. These people are at best the equivalent of the liberal who, after Richard Nixon’s 49-state sweep in 1968 said, “I don’t know how McGovern lost; I don’t know anyone who voted for Nixon.”

Further, until the day that religion does go away, there is no one on the planet who can logically fail to have a religious position. “I believe in God” is a religious position. “God is a fairy-tale” is a religious position. “I don’t know” is a religious position. And your religious position, once known, affects the behavior of other people with religious positions toward you. Even refusing to declare a religious position will do that.

Therefore, we are doing a grave disservice to our children, to say nothing of our nation as a whole, when we do not teach about religions. And why do we not teach about religion? Because we are petrified of the potential consequences. We are scared that our children will be exposed to religions we don’t agree with. Our children might turn Muslim. Or atheist. Or Christian. To which I can only say: if you are so worried that being exposed to religious ideas other than your own in a class for a year or two might cause your child to embrace another religion than the “true” one you are teaching in your home, then you must not be doing a very good job of being the (un)religious leader of your household. I think that’s a big fear behind our unwillingness to consider this idea. We’re worried that our kids might become one of those people.

Oh, we pretend to have higher motives. We don’t want to “offend” anyone. Sure. So rather than make anyone the least bit uncomfortable, we, in the name of civil discourse, pretend that religion is either unimportant or does not exist. We are lying to them (which they know) and telling them that public discussion and debate about such things can’t happen because disagreeing with someone over such matters is tantamount to a declaration of enmity.

Is this the right lesson to teach in a democracy? Because we’re teaching it. That’s what we’re teaching by not teaching religion. That disagreement is hostility and war, and the only way to avoid that is to lie to one another. And a democracy cannot survive that loss of trust and honesty. No, what we need is a Comparative Religion course that forces our students to examine the different belief systems according to their own points of view. We take a comprehensive view of, say, the six-to-ten most practiced religions in the nation (yes, including atheism) and teach their historically-known origins, the origins as they see them, and an overview of the dominant doctrines. For kids who believe in a faith not represented, we let them have a day of class time to present their faith, or to invite a religious leader of their choosing to present it. No one is forced to pray to anything, or to participate in any overtly religious activity. No one is proselytizing. Everyone is studying, and learning what people believe.

Now about this time I expect to hear a few major whines:

“But why can’t Social Studies classes teach that? They teach history, and religion is part of that, right?”
Yeah, but it’s big enough to warrant its own class. That’s like asking why we teach US History and not just World History. Isn’t the US in the world? I can’t teach all the doctrines of even all the major religions. I’m not qualified to explain their theologies, and how they’ve changed, and why people act the way they do in support of them. I might be able to with some training, and time to teach them, though. Which means, having a separate class.

“But what about all those people pushing their own agenda? What about bad teachers who push THEIR religion onto MY kid?!”
Okay, seriously, you think you won’t hear about that? Treat it like you would any other incompetent or abusive teacher. Report it, complain about it, and if it gets bad enough, go elsewhere. If it’s real, and not just you being paranoid, it will be addressed. Bad teachers happen; this subject isn’t special.

“I like the way we do it now, because it does teach kids that religion is unimportant, and religion shouldn’t exist.”
Well, okay. That’s at least honestly said, but of course, you’re turning around and lying to the kids and they know it, as I said above. And you’re taking the position that it’s okay for the government to push the religious position of agnosticism on our children (because you acknowledge it is doing that), which is both unconstitutional, because it effectively violates the Establishment clause, and bad education, for reasons discussed above.

“But what if we get it wrong?!”
Okay, this one at least isn’t rooted completely in selfishness. But we get school wrong all the time. Ask any teacher. We will get it wrong, frequently. But it’s not the end of the world. We screw up, we learn, and we do better. We consult with religious leaders if we’re accused of misrepresenting matters of faith, we take their input, and we do better next time. Like adults who care.

Adults who care need to teach this, without fear or favor. Without flinching. Because otherwise we are further teaching a lie, and weakening ourselves.