True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
Those of a certain vintage are likely to remember a TV ad for a Hasbro board game that has haunted my nightmares since I first saw it many moons ago.
The themes of this ad have been rattling around in my head since I saw it as a child and I cannot think of a better example of divisive imperial conditioning from the maligned boomer gen, than weaponising family fun by targeting children with a checklist of outcomes that signify societally acceptable conditions for success in life. I say success. That’s not accurate. It’s about winning, not just succeeding.
It’s entirely reasonable for one to suggest that I should cool my jets because it’s “just a game”. And let’s say that’s accurate. Let’s say there was never any malevolent goal when developing the win conditions other than selling a bunch of useless plastic and cardboard to families. That, to me, is even more terrifying. To absent-mindedly think that beating other people at marriage, net worth, property ownership, inheritance and procreation is an indicator or getting life right would suggest that the world should be in pretty bad shape, right?
It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to realise that climbing to the top of that kind of race would make one the best at being a virus, right?
It’s not just me, right?
Now then, if we’re programmed that these are the win conditions for a successful life, what do we do when we fall short of the mark? It’s not like we can package up the useless plastic and cardboard, shelf the game and watch the box crease under a the load of other, equally fucking shit games. We have to keep playing. The only way to stop the game is to be dead and it appears that people are almost as scared of death as they are of being embarrassed online.
What happens if we never marry, or our marriage falls apart? What happens if we are infertile? What happens if we are born into unfortunate circumstances and never find a way to win the lottery or become a person who wears a suit? We are losers. Now, what does being a loser in society do for our self esteem? Makes us feel sad and lonely and worthless and terrible and pathetic and pointless.
That’s okay though, because there’s a new phenomenon. It’s called “self love”. Self Love is a thing where we spend a whole lot of time thinking about ourselves and affirming we are actually great, despite any evidence to the contrary. We can pay for courses in learning about how to tell ourselves we’re great. We can read books on how to tell ourselves we’re great. Once we’ve mastered that, we can start posting things on social media about how great we are and we can tell others how great we are. Once we have spent long enough convincing ourselves how great we are, and telling others how we are, we can have the world bend to our will because we deserve to win at life – because we’re great.
We can then walk around calling ourselves “type A” personalities and be under the illusion that the A stands for Alpha, and not in actual fact Asshole.
Imagine a country that did this. Proclaiming its power to the world with tiny fists, as if that was a good thing, chest all puffed out, collective pea-sized brains knocking around inside its skull, making a threatening noise like a fangless rattlesnake. You’d be embarrassed to live there and wouldn’t want to visit. Why should it be any different for people? Nobody likes an Alph-hole.
Alternative Game Theory
There could be an alternative (or perhaps an antidote) to self-love, I’d like to run by you. It’s called self-acceptance. The idea is that we spend just enough time thinking about ourselves to realise that humans are at their best when they can be relied on, and have others they can rely on. They are at their best when they are able to improve the lives of those around them. When they can take an inventory of all that they are and say “These are my tools. What good can I do with them?” Now, those tools may not fit neatly into those needed to win at a board game, but the fact is the real rulebook for The Game of Life is a single line that reads:
Don’t be a dick.