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  • Writer's pictureTimothy Davis

Mike's Musings: Story or Game? Parts I and II

By Mike Ripski, University Chaplain

Part I

In a recent Opinion column (7/21) in The New York Times, David Brooks asks, "Is Life a Story or a Game?"

The question is prompted by Will Storr, who argues in his book, The Status Game, that the story version of life is an illusion.

Brooks presents Storr's case: "Human beings are deeply driven by status. Status isn't about being liked or accepted; it's about being better than others, getting more: "When people defer to us, offer respect, admiration, or praise, or allow us to influence them in some way, that's status. It feels good."

High status people are healthier, get to talk more, have more relaxed posture, get admired by their social inferiors, and have a sense of purpose, Storr argues. That's what we're really after.

The stories we tell ourselves, that we are heroes on journeys toward the true, the good and the beautiful -- those are just lies the mind invents to help us feel good about ourselves.

Life is a series of games.

There's the high school game of competing to be the popular kid. The lawyer to make partner. The finance game to make the most money. The academic game for prestige. The sports game to show that our team is best.

Even when we are trying to do good, Storr asserts, we're playing the "virtue game," to show we are morally superior to others.

The desire for status is a "mother motivation," and the hunger for status is never satisfied.

Brooks observes: "I think Storr has been seduced by evolutionary fundamentalism."

* * * *

If I get what Brooks is saying, Storr is saying is that "status" is but another word for self-preservation, survival of the fittest, dog-eat-dog competition to be the Top Dog, King of the Mountain, No. 1.

"Winning isn't everything--it's the only thing."

Is Starr right?

Brooks doesn't think so.

Part II

In high school I found refuge from life in sports. Especially basketball. It had rules. Refs to enforce them. Fouls were penalized with "free" throws for the offended. Boundaries made everyone aware of what was in and what was out. Timeouts allowed you to catch your breath, assess your strategy and tweak it. And, when time ran out and the game was over, the scoreboard declared to the world who won and who lost.

The game was "neat." No grey. Definite. You didn't have to search for meaning. You didn't have to wrestle with life's big questions. You didn't need theology or philosophy to "connect the dots" of our disparate experiences to create a story that makes sense of them.

That was the way I wished life was all the time.

It wasn't.

Mine wasn't.

Mine isn't.

* * * *

Brooks believes that Storr has been seduced by evolutionary psych fundamentalism.

("evolutionary psych fundamentalism"?)

He thinks Storr's cynicism regarding humankind's higher angels is due to Storr's conclusion that we are unable to "face how unpleasant we are."

Brooks acknowledges that "the gamer mentality that Storr describes pervades our culture right now." He points to social media and American politics.

In the end, Brooks concludes, "The status-mad world that Storr describes is so loveless--a world I recognize but not one I want to live in. Ultimately, games are fun, but gaming as a way of life is immature. Maturity means rising above the shallow desire--for status--that doesn't really nourish us.

"It's about cultivating the higher desires...the desire for a good and meaningful life that inspires people to commit daily acts of generosity.

"How do people gradually learn to cultivate these higher motivations?

"To answer that, I'd have to tell you a story."

* * * *

David Brooks, I like that.

A lot.

I guess that's why the Bible feeds my soul.

It's full of stories.

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