Don Paglia | Marriage and Family Counseling. Constellations Workshops


Tip #62:

“Fly-fishing may well be considered the most beautiful of all rural sports.”

                                                                                Frank Forester, 1895

John, a hugely successful businessman in his late fifties, who has amassed millions of dollars, when asked what it takes for him to be happy, replied that “in order to be happy my day has to include making at least $1,000,000.00.“

Steven, also a man in his fifties was asked the same question. He told his questioner: “I need to wake up and be able to place my two feet on the floor and know I made it through the night and now have one more day of life!”     

I don’t have to spell it out for you. These are two very different expectations. They lead to two different results. How we look at things determines the likely outcome. While some think calling Life a Game diminishes life, I hold it as a useful and powerful metaphor. Of course metaphors have limitations. However, they are a way to framing things and potentially opening horizons. Therefore using life as a game can create a perspective to operate from and thus create conditions that can go so far as to move, touch and inspire not only yourself but others, as well. I’m alright with seeing life as a sport. I say, go and do some of the things great sports people do. Great athletes have tremendous commitment, perseverance, and discipline. They play to win, while also not being attached to the result. These same things readily apply to creating a successful and happy life. Being a good sport also counts in real life, as well, not to mention learning from one’s mistakes in order to improve our Game.

Rules that apply to playing a game and living one’s life are not that different. When we figure out these rules and play by them our life becomes enriched, satisfying, and worthwhile.  

The two men I mentioned each have very different rules for achieving happiness. While John can be considered a successful businessman he doesn’t leave himself much room for happiness. Maybe earning $1,000,000 each day works for you. That’s great. Go for it. Steven, on the other hand, has set himself up for immense possibilities for happiness. He simply needs to wake up each morning. Some folks play the game of life by rules that are pretty damn stupid and self-defeating. Some make it so that it is impossible to win.

An old favorite movie of mine is called Heaven Can Wait. Warren Beatty plays a winning NFL quarterback who is mistakenly snatched from his life before he is supposed to be. To remedy this heavenly clerical mix-up he is given the body of an eccentric and successful business man, but whose business practices are sometimes unethical and unscrupulous. Beatty’s character knows nothing about running a business or dealing with a board of directors. What he does know a lot about is being a successful professional football player. He tells the board of directors, much to their dismay, that from now on “they are only going to do the things that a winning team does. Therefore they’re going to let the other “teams” make all the mistakes, and they’re going to instead play like a winning team plays.” He adds, “So when we get to the Super Bowl we’ll have already won the game because we’ve been doing so all season long!”  

Before we can have a happy/successful life we must first believe we deserve such a life. Most people do not think they do. This explains why many people, when they begin to do well and start succeeding, they trip up. They make a faulty mistake or blunder. It often is sabotage. To be more precise it is self-sabotage. In other words when we are not comfortable at some new level of success or happiness and we takes steps – conscious or unconscious – that bring us back to our former and more familiar level of play. You could say we return to the level we were used to being at. We get the results we tolerate.

When working with certain people I sometimes ask them “what is good about the particular problem you are distressed about?” Or I say “let’s look at the possible pay-offs that stem from your presenting problem. Initially they see this as bizarre or unhelpful. However, when we explore a bit deeper they come to recognize they are actually getting certain pay-offs that are too juicy to readily give up. We will hold onto the problem we are facing even if we claim we hate it.  We’ll say it is ruining everything, but it turns out we are willing to pay all kinds of “costs” because of all the pay-offs it is providing us.

“What pay-offs?” You ask. Here’s a list:

  • We get to be right: We love to be right and we’ll do lots of things to see ourselves as right. We can go and find 50 people to agree with us and convince ourselves that we are right, and we’ll make being right more important than anything – more important than our relationships. If being right undermines our relationships, or our life itself, that’s a cost we’ll pay. Being Right is an addiction.
  • We get to make the other person(s) wrong: This goes hand-in-hand with our need to be right. Therefore we get to prove that you – the other – is wrong. We’ll fortify antagonistic and unhealthy relationships and we’ll fight to the bitter end.
  • We get to justify our behaviors: If I am right I can justify and explain why I wasn’t kind or generous or civil. It’s because of whatever is coming at me from you and from our antagonistic relationship. I am justified in doing or not doing whatever based upon what you are now doing/not doing.
  • We get to validate ourselves and invalidate the other(s): My actions are valid, where as yours are not. You’re actions are invalid. I am able to build myself up a few notches as I take you down a few. In doing so I make myself superior to you, while making you inferior.
  • We get to play it safe: I don’t have to take any risks by reaching out to you or by amending whatever the present difficulty you and I are facing. I can simply remain safely over in my world of rightness without any need to initiate coming together or attempting to repair or, much less, own any part of our relationship problem(s).
  • We get to be irresponsible: I can stay like a child. I can do immature and irresponsible things. I can shut down, or cry, or pout, or stay passive, or not do any things adults would do. I can avoid growing up and learning to become a more capable and effectively loving person.

That’s a lot of pay-offs! So what if the costs seem high? It will always be the payoffs that keep any persistent problem we may have in existence.  

So, here’s a thought: What if we took on that the game we are all called to play in our life is to love God and neighbor? If I take on this idea, that I am here for love – to grow into an effective and powerful lover – I’d start to notice that when I love someone I simply forget about myself and I think about this other person. I become less concerned with myself. And if I love this other person and know that it is mutual then I know the other person is thinking of me. So what happens in love is that each person forgets him/herself in order to put the other one first.

This is what God asks, that we live in such a way that we don’t have to be concerned about ourselves. God will think about us. We are able to live without worry or concern because we know we are in God’s hands.

We also begin to see God shining through all people and all creation. This is not some nice story. It is true. When we abandon ourselves to God we see more readily that God manifests everywhere, in everything – in people and things and in nature and in events and so forth.

We cannot be without God. It’s impossible. When we are concerned about ourselves we don’t see it; but God is unrelenting. Spiritual progress is not some test at the end of our lives. It is simply a question of how well have we lived? How well did we love? This love has to be an unselfish love based upon respect, service, and a disinterested affection that doesn’t ask to be paid in return. 

What I am really saying is that every living thing reveals an aspect of God. This is true in a tree, a mountain, a bird. It is certain also true in every human being. God is greater than the whole of our universe, and this Creator penetrates us all. When we recognize God in one another we can enjoy all things as sacred and holy. We can do so because we are coming from love.

Such love often takes a lifetime of practice. It’s part of becoming great at the Game of Life. In doing so we come to discover in the other person an inward nature every bit as mysterious and deep as our own, but uniquely different and willed to be so by God. This is a game worth playing; One where everyone wins. Playing are a powerful and capable love makes it all worthwhile.