Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

My New Getting-to-Know-Us Game

Learning life's ropes by telling stories about times we got tangled in them

I’m liking a new parlor game I invented. No one wins or loses but everyone connects. 

For years now I’ve believed that dilemmas are much more fundamental than principles. I’ve cataloged the fundamental dilemmas we deal with. There aren’t that many. They go way back though, some of them to the origins of life.

A big fundamental one is nicely captured by the serenity prayer, the dilemma we face deciding when to accept and when to push. Since the beginning of life, organisms have been accumulating the wisdom to know the difference between situations that call for accommodation (the serenity to accept) and assertion (the courage to try to change things.).

Adaptations are that very wisdom, for example bears adapting to cold weather they can’t change, and evolving claws to paw fish out of the water, changing them into food.  

Fight vs. flight; yang vs. yin; confidence vs. doubt, faith vs. reason—to me these are different incarnations of the same serenity prayer dilemma, a dilemma because you don’t want to get it wrong and there are two ways to do so, fighting when you should accept and accepting when you should fight.

“Tell me a story about a time you fought and were glad you did?”

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“Tell me a story about a time you fought and regretted it?

In my game, we take turns telling stories, true but told with panache, a chance to craft autobiographical fiction, short stories, maybe three to five minutes each.

“How about a time you accommodated and were glad you did?

“A time you accommodated and regretted it?’ 

We’ve all got these stories. We’re woven by their common threads, loose knit tribes unified by the way we spend our lives dealing with different incarnations of the same dilemmas, to better or worse effect.

Other dilemmas: A time you…

Left something and regretted it?
Left something and were glad you did?
Spoke your mind and were glad you did?
Wished you hadn’t spoken?
Delayed gratification and regretted it?
Delayed gratification and glad you did?
Left something you wish you hadn’t?
Left something you’re glad you did?
Gave up on someone you wish you hadn't?
Gave up on someone you're glad you did?

It’s a getting-to-know-you game, but also a way to get to know us through the dilemmas we all face.

It’s also a way to inoculate yourself against the perils of moral principle, ridiculous yet culturally credible rules like always accommodate or always assert, rules  that polute our moral environment, rules we use to rationalize decision we’ve made, hypocritical efforts to feel high-mindedly certain about bets we place on where to accept and assert.

No one can or should accept or assert always. We all pick our battles, assessing what give and take a situation calls for. Inoculation protects us against popular forms of bullying, for example people chiding us for failing to accommodate them (“You’re not being nice”), as though there’s a moral rule that we should. 

Some folks I play the game with have trouble thinking of instances from such broad generalities as “A time when you joined something?”  So I narrow to particular incarnations of the dilemmas. Instead of “joined something” I try “took a job,” “kissed someone” or “dated someone.”

There’s an idea floating around that we date the people who enable us to work through the particular dilemmas we encountered in our childhoods.  It’s true but not very significant since in our childhoods we encounter pretty much all the dilemmas. 

Should you accommodate your parent’s standards or should you self-assert?  Should you work with or against your siblings? Should you speak your mind or speak only when spoken to?  

People spend a lot of therapeutic hours and money crafting and retelling the story of their personal epic exceptionally tragic childhoods and how they made them as bent as they are.  I did that for a long while—10 years in psychoanalysis, four days a week (!).

I’m glad of that psychotherapeutic story-practice, but am glad to be over it. I got over it by recognizing that my childhood wasn’t that exceptional. In it, I visited all the stations of the cross, all the crossroads of life’s dilemmas. Like pretty much everyone.

To me, the psychological archetypes we meet in therapy, whether Freudian, Jungian or otherwise, are manifestations of those fundamental dilemmas. The hero’s journey is simply someone facing the dilemma of whether to accept or assert, deciding to assert and proving glad he did in the long run.

We’ve all been there at the crossroads. Through my little parlor game we get to revisit those crossroads together, the bets we placed and the results we got, the good, the bad, the ugly the humblingly humorous.  Don’t panic, it’s organic--the human condition and even the biological condition, the dilemmas that come with the territory of life. Nice to visit them together in our parlors. 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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