What kind of game do you think you’re in?
If that’s true, what type of game is it?
Are we in the well-known zero-sum game? Where one side wins and gets everything and the loser gets nothing? Or is it another type of game?
Maybe it’s a game where we can all win (or all lose) to a certain extent? A blended game. A game of cooperation. In which it might be better to cooperate than compete?
Which is it?
That’s an important question. Why? Because if you’re in a zero-sum game—there’s no surer way of losing than helping your adversary or letting them get ahead. But if you’re in a game of cooperation—there’s no surer way to lose (actually you all can lose!) than to be selfish, to be competitive, to act like you’re in a zero-sum game. Big, big mistake.
Now, some of these game theorists say that `zero-sum games are rare in the real world.” I’m no expert, but tend to agree. At home, at work, in public—you are often “playing games” where you neither get everything you want, nor do you risk losing completely and get nothing. You’re usually figuring out how to cooperate for mutual goals and objectives where everyone gets a little something—but not everything. Whether you’re riding the bus, or completing a work project, or catching up with a friend—you’re usually playing a cooperative game.
So, if that’s the world we’re in—a massive game of cooperation—we’ve all been playing absolutely terribly lately. As a writer, a creator, it seems to me that not only my country—but all of humanity—is flubbing these games of cooperation by assuming we’re in a zero-sum game and acting too selfishly and thinking too short-term.
Case in point, there’s the COVID pandemic. But there’s also climate change. And there are a million other things where people can’t seem to see beyond the edge of their own nose, let alone the edge of their property line, or beyond their neighborhood. Where people can’t be bothered (not to sacrifice themselves or live in hovel and eat sawdust for the rest of their lives) to do the absolute minimum (get vaccinated?) to protect other people.
It’s enraging and maddening to me. But I’m not powerless.
And neither are you.
I can choose to cooperate. I can choose to help. No one can stop me. I can choose to offer some advice, or a kind word, or a smile. To a friend or family member—or better yet—a coworker, someone who gets me a cup of coffee in the morning, or even a total stranger. Imagine that! I can choose to help out at work, be patient at the checkout line, or be courteous to the flight attendant on a crowded flight. I can act selfishly, like I’m in a zero sum game or be decent to others, like I’m in a game of cooperation.
Lately, I have tried to take things as they come. To find ways to listen to people, to hear them out, and if it’s appropriate to help out, to offer sympathy at the very least. It’s not hard. I have to admit I don’t always succeed, but I’m trying to improve, to do better. I don’t know why humanity has seemed to lose the capacity to see the common good. Perhaps it’s stress, perhaps it’s fear, perhaps it’s perverse incentives in social media.
I don’t know. I don’t have any overarching social media/economic/political solutions to offer here. But I do know one of the best ways to lose a game of cooperation (the one I think humanity is in) is to keep playing (too) selfishly. Winning (and meeting the challenges of the pandemic and other global changes) are going to require all of us to give up certain things for the common good, to play in a cooperative game.
By the way, this is almost the exact definition of the old concepts of liberty versus license.
People who believe in license think they can act however they want, whenever they want. People who believe in liberty realize that sometimes we must forgo certain things/rights in order to live in a functioning society. And that thinking, that liberty, is the basis of all free societies. John Locke (remember him?) wrote a lot about this.
But how does this relate to writers?
What’s a Creator to Do?
A long, long time ago, when Egypt’s Old Kingdom collapsed, the Egyptians thought the good times were gone for good. That they would never equal the wealth and splendors of that time, never create something as amazing as the pyramids. Egypt had fallen down into decay and would never be the same.
But some thought otherwise. And some of them were artists, were writers. They recalled the greatness of Egypt in stories and song and painting—they reminded their countrymen of their past greatness and showed them a way forward.
They did so primarily through stories. They helped reignite the people’s pride in their civilization. Over time, this led to stronger economic and political systems. To the world’s first renaissance, if you will. And today, the Middle Kingdom of Egypt is still renowned for its literature, its stories. There’s “The Tale of Sinuhe” and “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor” (my favorite story in ancient Egyptian literature, a sort of Robinson Crusoe).
Those steely-eyed dreamers of the Middle Kingdom still inspire me, should inspire every writer, really. It’s often writers, like the alpine flower, who indicate the first sign of rebirth. We’re harder to kill than you think.
The same can be said of St. Augustine, who wrote The City of God when the world of the Roman Empire was collapsing all around him. He wrote that book in direct response to the sack of Rome in 410. In the book, he envisioned a “City of God” more durable than the real, political, dysfunctional Rome (sound familiar?). Or take Henryk (Henry) Sienkiewicz who wrote a historical trilogy about Poland’s past when the country itself had ceased to exist. It was a piece that gave hope to the Polish people living under the occupation of the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian empires and, I like to think, was one of the things which helped the country reemerge in the 20th century despite more war and upheaval.
So, what’s a writer today supposed to do?
One, we must not give into despair. I am not one who’s going to write some post-apocalyptic tale where martial law is declared in the first 10 pages. (Godspeed to those other writers who do! But not for me!) But I do think if all we write about, if all we see on TV, if all we hear on Podcasts, if all we see in movies, is a terrible future…Then, guess what? Sooner or later, we’re going to be living in that terrible future. Please, let’s not talk ourselves into the End Times!
Second, I don’t think writers should sugarcoat things. Sure, things are in a bad state. Fine. I see it. We’ve all lived it the last two years of this pandemic. But I can’t just give people escapism. You know, just tell them “puppy dog and ice cream” stuff. Times are tough, that needs to be acknowledged, but humanity is resilient and adaptable. I might give the reader some pretty bleak stuff—even Battle of Stalingrad bleakness—but I don’t want them to lose sight of what the characters are fighting for, what we’re all fighting for. Simply by getting up every day and braving the crappy news cycle, the pandemic, the steadily growing drumbeat of climate disaster. A better world coming when all this is over and we wake up. On the page and screen, I want to see realistic characters in messed-up worlds who nevertheless persist, who fight on, and who arrive at a better place internally and externally than where they started. Maybe a little older, a little dustier, a little dirtier. Seasoned. And that’s exactly the sort of stuff I want to write. In fact, it’s the sort of stuff I have been writing.
So, be good to one another out there…Please. Be kind, be empathetic. But please DO draw the line at not tolerating utterly childish/selfish/ignorant/hateful behavior from others. That IS ALSO part of the game of cooperation. We all have to do our little bit. I’ll be doing mine (some of it associated with writing) and I hope you’ll be doing yours!
Alright, well, I have some more writing and editing to do! See you out there. Until next time.
Writing Update — Novella Done, Poems Incoming
This month, I finished only one new work. It’s a short poem called “Dominion.” It’s essentially about self-conscious cosmological entities and forces. I’m submitting it now.
I did a tally the other day and realized I have written first draft of 18 poems in the last six months or so. 18!!! So, becoming more of a poet lately. Of course, only 1 of the 18 (Dominion) is complete enough that I’m submitting. And those other 17 are in various states. But still! 18 poems shows me that, like it or not, I’m spending more time on poetry than I have in the past. I’m find it a great ceative outlet, but I’m not sure exactly where I want to go with it yet. I think I will pick 10 these, polish them, and send off to Beta readers.
They run the gamut from Speculative (mostly SciFi Horror) to pieces set in our world in the present day. I just write down whatever I feel strongly about. So…we’ll see where it goes…
Otherwise, the balance of the month was spent editing, editing, editing. This was one of my goals this years—so things are right on target. I’m pleased to announce I have completed final edits on my novella “The Presence.” I will be submitting it shortly and let you know what happens. Right now, my gut feeling is that I’m really pleased with it. And that’s the most important thing.
I have also been submitting other stories. They have racked up some rejections, but no acceptances yet. All for now, will be back soon with more updates!