Card Games

I am ashamed to say how much time I waste on computer card games --bridge, gin rummy, hearts, FreeCell, solitaire, cribbage and (when I'm feeling truly mindless) even Old Maid. Gin and cribbage are my evening favourites, but I'll stop for a game of FreeCell whenever I think I need a break during the day, which is more often than I ought to, given the state of the house.

The other evening, though, I was getting massacred on all fronts: beaten hands down in gin, skunked in cribbage, utterly blocked in FreeCell--I even lost at Old Maid, for heaven's sake. I couldn't get any cards worth sneezing at. What's the name for a bridge hand in which you don't have a single card over a 9? Some would persist in the strong conviction that you just have to hang in there until the luck turns. Others of us say that the @#$% computer is just being like that tonight, and maybe it's a signal that we should be doing something more productive.

So I sorted some laundry and tidied up the sideboard and sat down with a book--Annie Dillard's _For the Time Being_, which I am dipping into rather than reading systematically. It seems to be that kind of book. And I ran across this passage: "You can live as a particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials with God, or you can live as a particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials without God. But you cannot live outside the welter of colliding materials."


Sometimes, as the philosophers remind us, you just can't win. Sometimes, even worse, you can't win, you can't break even, and you can't quit. It's merely frustrating when you can't win at cards unless, of course, you're playing for money. But life's bumps and bruises can be much worse than that;: they can be real bone-smashers. I remember one friend, who was going through Extremely Interesting Times, shaking her fist at the sky and yelling, "God, my character is strong enough. LAY OFF, already!"

Mostly, though, life sometimes seems like a welter of colliding materials. We're forever trying to juggle needs and demands, and something always gets lost in the clutter. We need to spend more time with the kids, and we need to earn an adequate income, and the two are incompossible. We need to develop a new vocation, and we need to hold down a job, and there are only so many hours in the day. We want to be open and vulnerable to love, but too often that means getting your heart drop-kicked across the room. You need to have your privacy respected; I need to get some problems out into the open, and one of us is going to lose. In church terms, one group needs to move on, and one group needs to stop in a particular place, and both can't have it their way.

You'd think that in a properly regulated universe, one run by a loving, omnipotent God, there'd be a whole lot less of this confusion and chaos and hurt. God would steer us in such ways that we'd bump into each other much less often. But it isn't that way. It never has been that way, despite all our desire for a Golden Age, always unattainably in the past, when there was concord and perfect harmony and everyone knew their place and cleaned their plates without being asked. Funny how the Golden Age always trails behind us and Utopia always lies ahead, just out of sight, but Today is always just the usual mess: "jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today." Today is always colliding bits of matter and apparent chaos, and where's God in the midst of it? Or is this world simply going to hell in a handbasket, as generations have always claimed?

But for God to run this world in a neat and orderly fashion--given the sheer number of us in it--he'd have to program us into a rigidly choreographed dance, like a cotillion: steps formalized in an unchanging pattern, everyone knowing what his or her place should be, moving to a single piece of music. A cotillion might delight the eye with its symmetry and grace, but it's a lousy way to live. If we're to have the freedom to grow our own, highly individual souls, we can't do so in lockstep. But if we aren't in lockstep, there will inevitably be toes stepped on and shins kicked. A God who wanted us dancing in lockstep would be the ultimate control freak, and you can't be a control freak and love. The two don't go together, not at all.

The alternative is to accept that Dillard is right: we are indeed living in a welter of materials with which we're always colliding. Not, I think, that we're mere particles: we are far more important and complex than that. But we do seem to bump up against each other and this world with depressing frequency. Could there maybe be some purpose--not pattern, necessarily, but purpose--to all these bruises?

The process of making a soul invariably, it seems, involves periods of pain: the Bible speaks of the refiner's fire. Nobody said it would be easy. We learn to be patient and enduring in these times; we learn that the best comfort in them is finding ways to comfort others. We learn to accept that we may have to wait until we're out of the mess before being able to make any sense of it. We learn that our messes are almost always self-chosen, and we figure out enough about ourselves to understand how we got into this one in the first place. We learn, with any luck and willingness, some of the fruits of the Spirit: patience, endurance, self-control, humility. We learn to let go, to realize what does matter and what doesn't, however attractive it may be.

Or we can go howling out into the cold, whirling darkness, locked in resentment because it didn't turn out the way we thought it should be. I should be able to win at FreeCell, and there's something wrong when I don't. Childishly, I look for ways to exit the game without having to acknowledge that I've lost it. I have the right to have my own needs met, regardless of what that does to others. If I don't like the way the game is going, I'll just take my marbles and go home. The church is there to meet my needs and to be the way I want it to be, and if it doesn't, I'll go find another church. This is human nature, and it's perfectly normal and understandable. I don't, however, think it gets a person anywhere I'd like to go.

It's through death that we come into a greater life. It's through learning to deal with small losses - even big losses - that we shape the material God gave us into a soul. The process does seem to involve a whole lot of bumped elbows. It means giving up our own rights sometimes, so that another's real needs can be met. It means setting the self aside, not once, but time and time and time again, not in great whacking sacrifices for which we'll get our egos patted, but in daily small decisions--not for sake of sacrifice per se, but for the sake of Christ's example.

Maybe I'm in for a streak of luck at gin rummy, and maybe I'm not and should be doing something else. Maybe if life bumps me hard, it's some sort of signal that I need to rethink the direction I'm going in, instead of stubbornly marching down this particular path.

But if I'm going to live, inevitably, as a particle continually colliding with other matter, I think I'd rather have God alongside than not. At least God can comfort the bruises. k

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 12 Feb 2000
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