Playing To Live Or Living To Play

We don’t play in our lives, as James Carse says, but rather we play in order to live, and what that means is that we aren’t actually living. As Carse says, life itself becomes the prize which we are to attain as a result of our successful playing; it is therefore ‘the desire to live’ that fuels our striving, that fuels our ‘serious’ or ‘finite’ play. The ‘desire to live’ is – needless to say – not a healthy thing. This is a hunger that can never be satisfied because it’s a hunger that is coming from the wrong place. “Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?” says Khalil Gibran.

 

There is a flavour that comes with this particular style of living and this is a flavour with which we are all very much familiar. It is the flavour of what rebel economist EF Schumacher calls the ‘Global Megaculture’ which is the dominant way of life on this planet. When people are constantly hungry, self-interested, and relentlessly, aggressively competitive then this is the result of ‘playing to live’, rather than ‘living to play’! When we play in order to live (i.e. when we engage in our life-activities in order to obtain some kind of assumed all-important external ‘benefit’ that doesn’t actually exist) then everything assumes a type of heartless seriousness that is ultimately pathological. The seriousness that we are talking about derives from a need that can never be satisfied and this is ‘the need to be validated as a real person by the meaningless game that we are playing’. We are therefore caught up in a very unpleasant situation here – if we don’t succeed in our play then we don’t get to live – we will see it pass us by, we will see everyone else living when we ourselves are not able to. We can only look on at them – full of frustrated yearning, full of envy and bitterness. And yet even when we do ‘win’ (within the terms of the arbitrary societal game that we are playing) we don’t get to live  – we don’t get to live because we have alienated ourselves from life by identifying with a societal role, we don’t get to live because we have alienated ourselves from life by making a goal of it.

 

If anyone told you that this was a desirable state of affairs to end up with then you would have to question either their integrity or their sanity. A more disastrous setup cannot be imagined! The only possible way to make a go of such a situation is to hang onto the illusion that the ‘prize of life’ will be bestowed upon us at some point as a reward for us competing successfully in the artificial arena of societal life, and make sure that we never let anyone tell us otherwise. If we never succeed (as we are supposed to succeed) then we can keep on believing that the goal is still there to be obtained and this is of course a belief that will perpetually torment us. If on the other hand we do succeed then we will just have to fool ourselves that we are living when we are not. This isn’t too difficult a lie to buy into given that everyone else will believe us to have ‘made it’ even if we ourselves can’t help suspecting deep down that nothing has actually changed. In this case, we have to live through everyone else’s fantasy of what our life is like, which is something that can of course turn nasty at any moment! What goes up can also come down, after all! Living our lives through other peoples’ illusions about us is what sociologist John Berger calls ‘glamour’.

 

Of all the possible ways that there might be of living life this has got to be the most stupidest and most pointless. It is utterly stupid and utterly pointless. There is a benefit to this appallingly stupid scheme all the same – it’s just that the benefit in question isn’t ours! We are not the beneficiaries. The ‘benefit’ – very obviously – belongs to the system that is being perpetuated. The house wins, not the punter! What we looking at here is a game that keeps us hungry whether we win or whether we lose. If we lose then obviously we’re hungry and if we win we’re still hungry – we’re hungry for the reason that we have just given, we are hungry for the ongoing going validation from the crowd that our ‘winning’ actually means something, which doesn’t!

 

We can criticise our current economical/political system on many fronts – we can say that it creates a hideous inequality of wealth, we can say that it creates an avaricious competitive uncaring attitude in people that ensures that – rich or poor – we’ll never know happiness, or we can say that it inevitably results in an exploitative disrespectful orientation towards the resources of the planet that will ultimately spell our ignominious doom at some point or other. All of these are very pertinent criticisms – clearly. But the most essential ‘criticism’ of all is a psychological one. The most essential criticism of all that all of our energy and intelligence is being harnessed for a purpose that has absolutely nothing to do with our own well-being – our life energy is being used for one thing and one thing only – the perpetuation of the system that is exploiting us. We aren’t the ‘exploiters’ at all – we are the exploited.

 

The confidence trick that we have fallen for is as simple as it is devious and it is been the mainstay of human societies for as far back as the records go. That which is freely given to all, across the board, with complete impartiality, has been turned into a prize that has to be won as result of us playing a complicated game, as a result of us ‘following out someone else’s rules’, in other words. Rather than being able to live our lives freely therefore, we are under pressure the whole time – the pressure to succeed, the pressure to make something of ourselves, the pressure to please or placate the machine we are caught up in, the pressure to do well by the uncaring mechanical system that we have haplessly adapted ourselves to.

 

Work is essential in life – inseparable from life, in fact – but the point is not that we should not work (which is – ultimately – impossible anyway) but rather that we should not work in order to live. Working in order to live means that whilst the activities which we engage in will supposedly result in ‘life’, they are not themselves living. All of our activities have become imbued with this quality of ‘end-gaming’ and this is a quality that is anti-life. Very obviously it is ‘anti-life’ – we are always rushing but we are not actually getting anywhere. We are always anxious to ‘skip ahead to the next goal, and the next goal after that’ and each goal symbolises the life that we don’t have, but which we wish so much to have. We ‘live in abstractions’ and the corollary of this is that we have to make do with a type of existence that has no actual ‘being’ in it. We have to live in the Promissory Realm – the realm which is entirely made up of promises which can supposedly be redeemed at some point in the future.

 

We are living on the basis of the promise of being and this is what makes us into ‘slaves of the mechanical system’. The system is promising something that it just doesn’t have to give us in the first place and this means that we’re in for a long wait… If we were in our right minds – so to speak – then we’d see this and we wouldn’t be fooled, but we aren’t in our might right minds and so we don’t see it. We very much aren’t in our right minds. What has happened to us is that we have accepted a type of deal and the nature of this deal – as we started out by saying – is that we will immerse ourselves in the game in order that we might win the glorious prize of life at the end of it. This – as James Carse points out – means that ‘in our playing we are not actually alive’. As we read in Revelation 3:1, ‘Thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead.”

 

What we are talking about is a kind of ‘mechanical prelude’ to life only the supposed ‘prelude’ goes on forever. The ‘prelude’ goes on forever (and the promise of being is forever unfulfilled) because the mechanical can never give rise to the non-mechanical, just as a rule can never give rise to freedom. Because the mechanical realm can never give rise to freedom not only can the mechanical realm never give rise to freedom, it cannot ‘contain’ any freedom either. There can be no freedom in it and what this means is that we have no way of relating to the reality of what freedom means, we only have the word on its own. We actually have no interest in the reality of what freedom actually means (this is something that is completely alien to our socially-adapted constitution, after all) and so all of our attention, all of our interest, is on the signifiers of freedom, the symbols (or surrogates) of freedom that the mechanical realm has provided us with. We are not ‘in our right minds’ and so we can’t see that the system is promising us something that it can’t ever deliver. We’re not in our right minds so we can’t see that the world which we have adapted ourselves to is made up entirely of literal signifiers of a reality which is itself not ‘literal’.

 

We are not in our right minds because the system (or the machine) has ‘given us its mind’, to use Carlos Castaneda’s phrase. The machine ‘runs us as projections of itself’, we could say. The system operates us as photographic negatives of who we really are; we are ‘someone else’s version of ourselves‘, so to speak. It’s as if we have been lured into a dark subterranean realm where the sun never shines and where because the sun never shines we have forgotten that there is such a thing as the sun, we have forgotten that there is such a thing as the light. We have wandered into Plato’s cave and taken our place along with all the other prisoners, spending our whole lives watching shadows as if that were somehow an interesting or valuable thing to do. The shadows (i.e. the literal signifiers) aren’t really interesting; they aren’t actually even the tiniest bit interesting. The shadows – if we may be forgiven for elaborating on Plato’s analogy – exert their terrible life-denying hold on us for one reason and one reason only – because they are making promises that they can never keep, promises that have become a substitute for reality itself…

 

 

 

 

Loyalty To The Lie

The social life is one in which we perpetrate a kind of hoax without ever focusing on the fact that we are doing so. We could also say that the social life is a life which revolves around maintaining a fiction that we do not ever admit to being such. We think that society, or the social life, is all about something else, something more honest, but – primarily – it is this (i.e. ‘perpetration of the hoax or fiction’) that is the function that is being served.

 

One way to talk about this hoax is to say that we are being sold the idea that it is possible (and not just possible, but highly desirable) to have a type of life that in reality it is just not possible to have. This is rather a big hoax therefore since if we fall for it (as we generally do) then instead of living the life that it IS possible for us to live, we will be forever trying to live a life which it is simply not possible to live, no matter how hard we try.

 

This is very far from being an ‘obvious’ point however. It is so far from being an obvious point that most people would not get it no matter how much time and effort you might put into trying to explain it. Of all the difficult things to understand, this is right there at the very top, and not only is it challenging for us to understand (even if we did want to) the plain truth it is that – deep down – we absolutely don’t want to! We really, really, really do not want to ‘get it’.

 

One way that we could look at the hoax is to say that it revolves around the idea that ‘it is good to be a narcissist’! It is not ever expressed like this of course but that’s what it comes down to – we are presented with the idea or image of this type of life (this narcissistic type of life) and along with this idea and the images that go with it come all sorts of subtle (and not so subtle) incentivizations. We are ‘sold the package’, in other words. We are sold the package and, as Sogyal Rinpoche says, we are sold it with superlative skill.

 

We are skilfully manoeuvred not only into believing that the narcissistic life is potentially a rewarding and satisfying one, but also into believing that it is the only sort of life there ever could be. We are manoeuvred into believing that it is the only possibility. Add into the equation the fact that everyone around us is also falling for this hoax hook line and sinker, then the chances that we will ever smell a rat are practically zero. The chances that we won’t fall headlong into this trap – i.e. the trap of ‘narcissistic withdrawal from reality’ – (along with everyone else) is astronomically tiny.

 

There is a rat however and it is very big one. It is a very big rat indeed! This is King Rat were talking about here – the Great Grand-Daddy of all rats, and there should be no doubt about this. This is ‘the hoax of all hoaxes’ and no one seems to know anything about it. The problem is that we don’t know anything else; we don’t have anything else to go on. It’s like being in the dysfunctional family or in an abusive relationship – we think that what we are going through is just normal, we don’t realise that we have been taken for a ride. We have mistaken our prison for reality.

 

The nature of our prison (which, as we have said, is the prison of narcissism) is that it is entirely hollow, without any genuine substance or ‘goodness’ to it at all. Our activity involves therefore striving perpetually to bring in some actual substance into our lives, and/or fooling ourselves into believing that there is substance there when there isn’t. An example of how we cultivate this particular illusion is given by John Berger – the trick that we use (according to Berger) is that we go to a lot of effort to create an impression (or image) of ourselves that makes it look as if we having a good time (even though we’re not) so that we can make other people envious of us. This he calls glamour; The happiness of being envied is glamour’, Berger says. When we can see that other people are envious of what we’ve got, then we can logically infer that we must have something there for other people to be envious of! Other people think we’ve ‘got it’ and so we think that too.

 

This then is John Berger’s explanation of what ‘the hoax’ is. We might naïvely think that – in this consumer society – we invest all of our energy in buying products so that the products will ‘make us happy’, but this isn’t it – we’re buying all the consumer-type stuff in order that other people might think we are happy, which will then allow us to feed off the illusion that they have about us! Deep down we know that we can’t buy happiness but what we can do is to construct a believable illusion of us having a good time, having a good life, being happy, etc, so that both ourselves and others can believe in it. The purest example of this is of course social media – why else would we spend all our time posting images of ourselves having a good time if we weren’t trying to construct a believable illusion?

 

Nothing we have so far said comes across as being too formidably difficult to understand, even though this is what we started out by saying. Where the ‘difficulty’ shows itself however is in understanding the actual reason for the narcissistic life being so hollow, being so devoid of substance. Why is ‘the narcissistic life’ ‘impossible to live’? One way of looking at this is in terms of the basic Buddhist idea of ‘the good mind versus the bad mind’ – the ‘good mind‘ being the mind of compassion, whilst the ‘bad mind’ is the mind of self-interest or self-cherishing. [The mind of self-cherishing is ‘bad’ not for any moral reason but simply because it always leads to suffering]. If we live on the basis of ‘the mind of compassion’ then there is meaning in our lives and we grow as people as a result; if on the other hand we live on the basis of self-interest and self-cherishing then our lives become sterile and joyless and there can be no growth. All that can grow is greed, and the need for power or control.

 

All religions have the function of teaching morality (or at least they started out this way!), but the point is that this is not merely a matter of ‘social utility’ – it’s not mere ‘convention’ we’re talking about here but something much deeper. If we actually sat down and thought about it we would see this truth very clearly – there can be no meaning in the life of a narcissist. We don’t of course ever see ourselves as such; we have made Narcissistic Personality Disorder into a designated condition in DSM-5 but this makes it even easier not to recognise that narcissism (to some extent or other) is pretty much the norm in our society. It also distracts us from seeing that our consumer society actually relies on us operating as narcissists. We both pathologize narcissism and promote it at one and the same time therefore, which is rather conflicted of us, to say the least!

 

The ‘hoax’ that is being perpetrated in our society (and very effectively, too) is that it is possible to live in Narcissist Mode and lead a meaningful and fulfilling life at the same time and because of the way societal pressures work we feel obliged – without ever reflecting on the matter very much – to maintain the fiction that we are happy, that we are having a good time, and so on and so forth. This is what ‘living the life of the image’ is all about. This is where all the emphasis goes – it goes into fooling both ourselves and others that we are having a great life inside of our narcissistic cocoon. This however is (and always will be) quite impossible, as we keep on saying. That’s a non-starter. That’s just not going to happen…

 

The hoax – therefore – is to get us to try (and keep on trying) to live a type of life that is impossible to live, and we collude in this hoax by maintaining the fiction as best we can, without realizing that this is what we are doing. Sometimes of course we just can’t maintain the fiction any more, and when we can’t we feel very bad about that – we feel very bad about it because we’re ‘loyal to the lie’. We don’t realize that we’re ‘loyal to a lie’ but we are – that’s why we are at such pains to maintain and protect the self-image’, that’s why we always see having the self-image tarnished or shown up in a bad light as being such an unmitigated disaster…