Ellie’s face turned maroon. “I’m angry!,” she screeched. She was playing a board game with her twin four year old sister, Evie.
Ellie gets intense. I’d never seen her this irate. Why was she angry? No other reason than her sister was ahead of her on the board. That was deemed unfair. I calmed her down. She resumed playing.
The girls proceeded to butcher the game. I resisted my urge to control and correct. I let them play on, refereeing only when it was important to call out cheating (as opposed to their misunderstanding the rules).
I glumly thought as they played, “This game is pointless”. It was rules driven with no autonomy or decision making … roll the die, count out the spaces. Roll a ‘six’ on the die, draw a card, do what the card says. Brainless! I lamented I was teaching my kids how to follow rote rules that are stupid and meaningless outside the context of a meaningless game. I was having an existential parenting moment.
Evie was 1 space away from winning. She had to roll the exact number, one, to finish and win. She started to gloat. I warned her, “We don’t celebrate a win until the game is over.” Two die rolls later, ‘six’! She pulled a card that sent her back to the beginning. Evie wanted to quit. “Evie, we don’t quit!,” I said. Evie pushed forward.
Ellie went from foul mood to victory dance mode when she found herself beating her sister. I told her the same thing I’d told Evie, “We don’t celebrate the win until the game is done.” The next die roll, ‘six’! Ellie was sent near the starting point on the board. She flared. “I’m so angry! This isn’t fair!,” she screamed.
I called the game over. There was no point moving on.
Ellie emotionally seized up. I asked from her “Give me your eyes,” to get eye contact. “Give me your eyes.” I repeated. She looked at me. I spoke quietly and slowly. “Do you like how you feel right now?” Ellie said, “No.” “What are you feeling?,” I asked. “Angry,” she replied.
” You have no control over what happens in this game. You roll a die. You pick cards. You do what it says. Your only choice is how you respond.” I pause for a moment. “If you get angry, you lose. If you keep control of yourself, you win … regardless of who wins the game.” “What do you choose? Be angry and lose or control yourself and win?” Her face softened. Ellie relaxed. She chose to let go of the anger and regain her composure. She chose to win.
Most of life is outside of our control. We don’t like to admit this. We don’t choose our parents, the timing of lights on the way to work, whether we’re susceptible to cancer, who we work for (even when we run our own business), or if cilantro tastes good or like soap.
It clicked for me when I coached Ellie to respond differently to the game. We can control how we choose to respond. We are responsible to control ourselves. It’s simple, not easy. It requires our human brain overcome its lower counterparts (primate, mammal, reptile). It requires mindfulness, discipline and maturity. It’s easier for some than others. It’s possible for most.
The kids’ game I deemed stupid and pointless with rules and structure I begrudged exposed this perspective. It wasn’t futile after all. The rules aren’t important. How we respond to them is. That is the real game.
This lesson dangled in front of me elusively for decades. I didn’t grasp it. It took 45 years for me to see and accept what I own – the way I respond to this game called life.
Maybe my kids can learn this life lesson 40 years sooner than I did. Of course, this is out of my control. Patient perseverance as I teach them over and over again … That’s something I’d like to control. And I can.