Life is not a game of musical chairs

Life is not a game of musical chairs November 21, 2016

What kind of friend do friends become
When the musical chairs get down to one?
Mark Heard

Musical chairs is an evil, vile, nasty little game. It’s the biggest lie, the biggest mistake, the deadliest trap.

The “game” itself is pretty dumb on its own. Way too much prep work. Say you’ve got 20 kids at a party and you want to play kickball. All you need is a ball and you’re good to go. But if you want to play musical chairs, then you’ve got to come up with 19 chairs and a sound system.

But that’s not the worst part. That kickball game is seven quick innings with all the kids involved, start-to-finish. But musical chairs would be a 20-inning marathon, and halfway through, half the kids are out — sidelined and bored. After another interminable five or six rounds, the majority of kids at this “party” haven’t been playing at all in forever, and they’re either having no fun at all or else they’re having the kind of troubling fun that otherwise bored kids tend to get into when all the adults are preoccupied with shuffling furniture around and working the pause button on the boombox.

With every passing moment, fewer and fewer of these people will be having any fun at all. (Wikimedia Commons photo by Artaxerxes)
With every passing moment, fewer and fewer of these people will be having any fun at all. (Wikimedia Commons photo by Artaxerxes)

And that’s not the worst part either. Sure, the game involves way too much set-up and delivers way too little fun, but the worst thing about it is the lesson it teaches.

“OK, kids, here’s a fun little game where we train you to be monstrous contenders in a Hobbesian war of all against all. With music! Life is zero-sum, kiddies. Remember that your happiness derives from others’ loss, and others’ happiness means less for you! You are ultimately, and always, utterly alone. All supposed friendship is conditional and fleeting. To be friendless and alone, in the end, means you’re the winner. Let’s play!”

The sick thing is that people — millions of people — think this is how the world really works. They think it’s all a big game of musical chairs — all a zero-sum competition in which we’re all fighting to keep seats for me and mine. (Well, for me, and then maybe for mine if there are still enough seats. But eventually, of course, it’ll be down to just me and my innermost concentric circle of remaining friends, at which point they’ll have to go too.)

Viewing the world this way is an express trip to misery. And that’s just as true for the ever-dwindling number of “winners” as it is for the vast majority consigned to be “losers.” It produces misery because it pits everyone against everyone else in pursuit of a prize that doesn’t really matter and that, by definition, cannot be celebrated or enjoyed by more than one person.

And it produces misery because it’s a lie. Because it isn’t true. It isn’t real. Life is not a game of musical chairs.

I liked a lot of this essay by Baratunde Thurston, particularly what he says here about bullies and bullying:

The bullying may be the worst part of these election results. How can you tell your child that bullying doesn’t work, when it’s exactly what the new president did to get his job, not in some distant youthfully indiscreet past but as a fundamental 2016 campaign strategy? The tweets are still there. I do not envy the parents of this young generation trying to explain why bragging about the size of your penis, encouraging sexual violence, and smearing entire ethnicities, religions, and nationalities is not the absolute best way to get ahead in this world.

He’s right. It’s impossible to tell your children that bullying “is not the absolute best way to get ahead in this world” because once we imagine the point or the goal in those terms — “to get ahead” — then bullying becomes not just the means but the end. Ahead of whom? Ahead of the other contestants scrabbling for an ever-diminishing number of seats in our lifelong game of musical chairs.

That’s a lie. Life is not about “getting ahead” but about moving everyone forward. It’s not musical chairs, it’s more like Parcheesi — we don’t win until everyone gets home.

This election didn’t change what we taught our kids about bullying. It strengthened and confirmed it. Being bullied, we always told the girls, is only the second-worst thing that can happen bully-wise. The worst thing would be if you became a bully.

Life is not a game of musical chairs, but many people have gotten confused into thinking it is. Don’t play that game. When the music stops and everyone starts fighting for a seat, walk away. This game has always had more losers than winners — that’s how it works. And every kids’ party that’s ever been foolish enough to stage this game confirms that the majority of kids excluded from the game wind up having way more fun over on the sidelines than the unlucky handful of bullies-in-training still fighting for chairs by the end.

Go join the “losers.” Make your own music and bring enough chairs for everyone who needs one. And if you can’t find a seat, get up and dance.


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