One of the first games that my daughter learned to play was Candyland. She could sit for hours picking cards and moving around the board; she loved the colors and the pictures of sweets. Unlike most people who play board games, she didn’t know that the object was to get to the gingerbread house and “win”. In fact, if she were nearing the end of the rainbow path, she would start to get worried that the game would soon be over. She would get excited if she drew the Candy Cane or Gingerbread card that took her back to the beginning. She simply loved playing the game.
Sometime in our childhoods, most of us start to get more competitive. Maybe it is an offshoot of evolution. For millennia, the winner in the game of life got to survive and pass on their genes, whereas the loser would perish. Whatever the reason, at some point we typically begin playing more to win than to enjoy the game. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to win, a lot of times we come up on the losing side of the game. If we happen to lose, does that take all of the fun out of the time we spent playing the game? If so, it seems that the game would appear to be a waste of time.
This makes me think of playing cards–I used to play a lot of cards. One of my favorite games was Euchre, which is a game similar to Bridge. In my 20s, I used to take it pretty seriously. My friends and I would have Euchre tournaments in which the prize was bragging rights. Some of the games got really heated. I remember getting upset when my partner didn’t play the right strategy, or when the cards wouldn’t fall my way. Eventually I began to see the absurdity in this approach to the game. When I became less attached to winning a funny thing happened: instead of having the overall quality of my night depend on what the scorecards read, I began to enjoy the conversation more. I started to enjoy the company more. I even began cheering on my opponent when he got a really good hand or made an especially good play of the cards. My ability to have fun on Euchre nights was greatly improved.
This is similar to life in general. We often think of “winning” as finishing or succeeding. We may think that we will win once we reach retirement, or when we finally purchase that certain car. When we orient ourselves towards such goals, we look so far ahead that we miss the moment. Though it can be helpful to have goals, we must be careful not to define happiness or success by these measurements alone. If we forget that the present moment is all we truly have, we are constantly motivated by our clinging to the past or desire for a certain future. This is a recipe for suffering. Sometimes things go the way we want them to go, sometimes they do not. It is often the case that even when we get to the goal that we have dreamed about, whether we retire or get that dream car, the “success” that we experience eventually seems hollow or less grand than we imagined it would be. When we untether our happiness from a certain outcome we allow the fullness of life to express itself in beautifully unexpected ways. We make it less about winning and more about enjoying the game. Then the real winner is the one who has the most fun. The real winner is the one who fully plays the game.