Life is not a game

Published 7:13 am Thursday, February 9, 2017

I was six years old when Christian Laettner drove a metaphorical dagger through my little heart.

The University of Kentucky was up by one in the biggest and closest game my young brain had ever witnessed. With 2.1 seconds left in overtime, Duke’s Grant Hill made a full-court pass to Laettner, who hit a jump shot as time expired. The Blue Devils won and advanced to the Final four.

As best I can figure, that game is the source of my oldest remaining memories of all-consuming emotion. I discovered new heights of joy when UK tied the game near the end of regulation, and again when Sean Woods scored over Laettner on the second-to-last score of the game to make it look for all the world like the Wildcats would win. I made my first excursion into the full-color depths of despair when that assumption came crashing down.

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In the sports world, the 1992 Kentucky-Duke game is regularly listed among the best ever played, and the way it ended is so infamous that even almost a quarter-century later, you can talk about “The Shot” and people know what you mean. Being part of such a game is really a badge of honor, even if you lost. But for me, it will always remind me of how I cried my eyes raw at 6 even though I hadn’t suffered a scratch.

Games can make us do ridiculous things. Irrational things. Insane things.

They can make us whoop and holler one moment when a technical foul is called on our opponent; they can make us curse the same referee in the next breath for not taking more severe action.

They can make us rejoice over indiscretions committed by our enemies, while we overlook and forgive similar crimes from our own camp.

Games can make us into insufferable braggarts when our team wins or thin-skinned nit-pickers when we lose.

When we’re at our worst, games can make us hope for — even condone — injury to or revenge on a player we dislike.

Fortunately, games are games and no matter how over-involved and emotional we get about them, at the end of the day, they don’t matter much.

But life is not a game. Life matters a lot.

We shouldn’t treat life like a game, but it seems more and more of us are doing just that. We pick teams in life like we do in sport — Republican or Democrat, southerner or northerner, progressive or conservative. Then we root for that team to “score” and the other team to “lose” regardless of the actual outcome.

We spend eight years demonizing the president as un-American and screaming about the end of democracy, then in the course of a single day, we switch tracks to denouncing those who won’t fall in line with our elected leaders.

We change the Senate rules so our side can dodge filibusters and do as we please with fewer votes, then we overflow with outrage when the other side plans to do the same thing.

We play pure politics with a Supreme Court seat in order to help our own chances in an election, then turn red in the face at the slightest whiff of politicking from across the aisle concerning our own Supreme Court pick.

We defend to the death even the most bald-faced lies of those representing our side, while holding up the slightest missteps by our opponents as evidence of conspiracy or treason.

Such behavior is fine if you’re watching a game. Go ahead and high five when a bad call goes your way. Feel free to taunt a rival shooter after an airball. But life is not a game. 

Life should not be a competition to glorify yourself and humiliate others. Such behavior is embarrassing and harmful. It can even be evil.

Playing life like a game leads to viewing others as less than human. It leads to ignoring broader consequences as long as we get what we want. It leads to divisive rhetoric, to general nastiness, to anger and fear, to willful ignorance, to acts of pure emotion with no thought.

We should be better than that. I hope we can be better than that.