Commitment and the infinite game

One of the frustrating truths about life is that you cannot simply decide who you want to be and then systematically work towards becoming that person. I am not talking about the practical obstacles or deficits in your skills or abilities that will invariably stand in your way. More fundamentally it is because taking on a habit or orientation to the world requires commitment and commitment is always backed by grace – the persistent sense that this way of being is worth it.  

I, for example, am committed to my children. I’ve made an overflowing landfill’s worth of mistakes with them – overlooked their talents, failed to provide them with stable routines or chores (“Other people in my class have chores, Mum, why don’t we?”), and many other things too embarrassing to mention.  But once my sluggish brain realises that they need something, if I can, I give it to them. I am similarly committed to my graduate class on Psychology and Sustainability. For the semester each year that it runs, it has me on a short thread. I mull over the last session we had together, fine tune the coming session, respond promptly to emails from students, and mark assignments with agonising attention to detail. My underpinning assumption in both cases seems to be something like: these people and I are in a lifeboat together whether I, or they, like it or not. And we matter. I’d better do my bit to keep us afloat.

Commitments in this sense, are different from either obligations or yearnings. Obligations stem from our respect for others or the power they hold over us. They carry with them a heavy heart born of their secondary nature – I don’t really want to go to that meeting or do a submission on that proposed bill, but I guess I should. Yearnings on the other hand are as light as feathers. How lovely to be fluent in Māori or knit a Fair Isle cardigan – one day, I swear! Obligations are part of the infinite game, as we must sometimes drag ourselves to someone else’s party just as we hope they will drag themselves to ours when needed. Yearnings too have their place, they promote admiration for those who really do speak Māori or knit Fair Isle cardigans, and where would we be if we couldn’t dream? But the pulse of the infinite game, the momentum that moves it from play to play and keeps it turning back towards life is commitments.

Commitments ferret out something real in us and our relationship to the world. If you were to take the words people use to describe things of infinite value and allow them to float around you, commitments are the ones that hover close; be it family, birds, delicious food, art, equality, sharing, rivers, or peace. These are the things that animate your life, that keep you in life. They may be local and specific with faces, names or places attached as with my children and students; or they may be activities or orientations that you find yourself constantly turning towards. Some people can’t shake music, some obsessively follow and commentate on politics or a sport, and others are compelled to protect natural landscapes or lobby for climate change legislation.

When you are committed it is as if you and the subject of your commitment are in tandem and the tasks involved are real, purposeful and compelling. As Robert Pirsig describes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The machine that appears to be ‘out there’ and the person that appears to be ‘in here’ are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.” When we really care about something then, we merge with our subject and grow both it and ourselves. When we are simply following the rules of a finite game on the other hand, there is a barrier between us and deep play that means our efforts will be only a partial fit – good enough for now perhaps, but if viewed closely, somehow a little off.

Back to that irritating little truth – that commitment can’t be forced. You can yearn to be an artist, but this doesn’t make you an artist. Even practice doesn’t really make you an artist, you become an artist when you care enough to practice. And the realisation that you care, that this or that matters so much you will nourish it as best you can, is grace. We can try and draw grace to us but ultimately she comes and goes as she pleases. In his book This Life, Martin Hägglund talks of Christian thinkers who lose their child (Martin Luther) or their spouse (C.S. Lewis) and who cannot help but grieve the lost person with a depth of suffering that is not relieved in the slightest by the story that they are now in the arms of God. And in her book Radical Hospitality, Lonni Collins Pratt discusses how you cannot do radical hospitality by aiming directly at it, you must instead be concerned for the actual person or people in front of you. This refusal of abstract entities (God, hospitality) to provide rules that can be reliably applied to all relevant situations, means we never forget our humanity – that what we care for is gifted to us from our nature and history as people in the world.

Still, the importance of grace to forming commitments does not mean we must sit back and wait for her to strike. We can move into promising spaces, try out activities, attend to the people around us, practice as if we care, and recognise when something has us in its grip. And seeking commitments is important I think, not just for ourselves, but for keeping our games in touch with core human values and the changing world in which we live. Or to come at it from the other side: when we give ourselves to finite games that don’t compel us to improve ourselves and the game, we risk perpetuating practices that pull us all a little further from life. You can’t choose who to be, but you can be alert to and nurture that which matters to you and to others. And that, surely, helps keep the infinite game in play.

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