Rules of the Game

August 18, 2014
Nearly 20 years ago my nieces Zoe and Marlee came to visit us in rural northern California from their home in suburban Chicago. At the time they were little girls, ages 5 and 3, and our kids were 6 and 7, so it was a full house of fun little kids. One night as we sat down for dinner I asked everyone to put their napkins in their laps. I’ll never forget the look on Zoe’s face, age 5, when she looked me square in the eye and stated clearly and emphatically “We don’t put napkins in laps in my neighborhood!”

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Last week I played a new card game with 34 other mindfulness teachers and facilitators. We split into seven groups of five. At the outset each group was given the rules of the game, which included playing in silence, though gestures and drawing pictures were allowed. After each round of five hands, those who’d won and lost the most hands moved onto other predetermined groups, and play resumed with the newly assembled groups.
It wasn’t long before big waves of gesturing and lots of looks of confusion and annoyance filled the room. And then the muffled laughter began to ripple out as we all realized that each of the original groups had been given varying sets of rules. The collective knowledge was unnerving, confusing, frustrating, challenging, intriguing and because it was a game, comical. One person even stood up in the middle of her group, incredulous, hands on her hips and said “They changed the f*#%@^g rules!”
We all know that everything changes, that life is challenging for everyone, and on some level we understand that everything depends on everything else. But until we’re forced, we don’t really know it in our bones. A sudden or serious illness, the death of someone we love, an unexpected loss of a job, or the fires burning northern California this summer, these get our attention and we begin to get it. Hardship brings it close, much closer than when things are going well.
The card game brought us all to the edge of our comfort. Issues of fairness, equality, communication, competition and culture were right there, palpable and sticky. Who was right? Was anyone wrong? How do we proceed when there is no level playing field?
We think we know the rules, the social and emotional norms of our families, communities, and those of the wider culture.  Imagine being the only person of your skin color, heritage or gender in a crowded room with others who not only look nothing like you, but know the world from entirely different sets of guidelines. What is that like? We cannot possibly know what it’s really like for anyone else. And what about varying rules around language, money and education?

If it were only as simple as what to do with our napkins.