Do we know what game we’re playing? and what are the rules?

Some thoughts on humans trying to do stuff together

So apparently there’s this guy called John Alexander who has written a book in which he uses an analogy from baseball to pose the question whether Christians sometimes forget what church is about. (I haven’t read the book, I only read about it on Meg’s blog.)

I don’t know much about baseball, but I loved the analogy, and I want to borrow it because I think it’s applicable not just to church, but to so much else in life: do we know/remember what game we are supposed to be playing? or did we set out to play baseball and end up with a game of tiddlywinks instead? or maybe some of us are still trying to play baseball and some are playing tiddlywinks, and the tiddlywinkers are yelling at the baseball players because they keep running around and disturbing their concentration, and the baseball players are yelling at the tiddlywinkers because they’re in the f***ing way, sitting there with their stupid game and… you get the picture, right?

I know this sort of thing happens in churches. It’s so easy to forget what it is we are gathered together to do, and to get sidetracked into stuff like should we have pews or chairs, should we stand when we’re singing/kneel when we’re praying/etc, what people wear, and so on and on and endlessly on… (or by whether or not it’s ok to mention the f-word, with or without asterisks…)

But I think it happens in lots of other situations – any time a bunch of people (or even just two) decide they’re going to do something together, there’s room for misunderstandings, disagreements, and just plain forgetting what the original plan was.

And of course there’s great scope for disagreements about the rules of the game…

When I went on a counselling course, our class spent some time at the very beginning discussing what ground rules we, as a group, needed in order to feel safe sharing the sort of intimate stuff we would be required to share in a course of that nature. We set these out in writing, so that it would be quite clear. We wrote down things like confidentiality, like not interrupting, like making sure our mobile phones are switched off or on silent.

But mostly in life we don’t do that. We don’t spell out the ground rules. And this means there’s a lot less safety or clarity.

So you can get into a chat with a bunch of friends and start pouring your heart out about some crisis in your life, and find that one of them butts in with: oh, that reminds me… and goes off on some tangent which is totally unrelated to your crisis, and you’re left bleeding.

Or you meet a friend you haven’t seen in ages and she asks you how things are, in a tone of voice that says: I really want to know. So you start telling her about your struggles, and suddenly her mobile phone rings and to your utter disbelief she actually answers the phone and engages in a ten-minute conversation whilst you’re sitting there feeling totally ignored, and you tell yourself that you’re never ever going to trust this person again… because you and she haven’t got the same ground rules. you have a rule in your mind that says: when you’re in the middle of a deep heart-to-heart conversation, you don’t answer the phone. she has broken your rule, but it is only that – your rule. it’s not everybody’s rule. you can’t assume that everyone will behave according to your own unwritten rules – because, let’s face it, you’re not God. (and even his rules get broken…)

So, even if we’ve said what game we’re playing – like “let’s have a chat” – we don’t have the rules clearly spelled out.

And we might all have different ideas about what the aim is.

When you’re playing a clearly-defined game, you know what the aim is – I’m not going to use the baseball analogy here because I’m clueless about baseball, but I know about soccer and I know that a player in a game of soccer knows that the aim is for his team to get the ball as many times as possible into the other team’s goal, and to prevent the ball from getting into his own team’s goal. So when you have a choice to make, that aim is what’s on your mind, that aim is what helps you decide what to do – you do whatever it is that you believe will help your team to achieve its aim. So, say you’ve got the ball and there are different directions you could kick it, one of those directions being towards your team mate who looks like he’s ready to receive the ball and kick it towards the other team’s goal, and the other direction being towards someone from the other team – which way will you kick the ball? if you remember what the game is about, you know which of these two options is best, right?

But when you say “let’s have a chat”, what is the aim of that? one person’s aim might be to have a mutual pouring-hearts-out whilst another person’s aim might be to keep things light and fun, which could make for a rather “interesting” conversation… yet another might be aiming for a one-way pouring-heart-out session and if the other person was expecting it to be mutual, there’s going to be some frustration there… And your aims will affect what unwritten rules you have in your mind – if your aim is a heart-to-heart, then you’re more likely to assume things like mobile phones switched off or ignored; whereas if you’re aiming for a fun and light way of passing the time of day, then answering the phone part-way through may seem reasonable to you.

Or when you say “let’s have a Bible study” – ok, those of you reading this who don’t go to church probably do not ever say “let’s have a Bible study”, but I’m sure you have other things that you do in a group setting – it could be going to the pub for a drink or having a girls’ night in or watching a football match together or having a book club meeting or whatever… I’m using the Bible study example because it’s something that is part of my life and something I’ve wondered about in this context of “do we know what game we’re playing” – I’ve been part of various churches and have experienced all sorts of different ways of doing this, and I find myself wondering sometimes if we’re all on the same page in terms of what we’re actually trying to achieve. Because it seems to me that some are looking at it as mainly a social interaction, some as a kind of lesson (i.e. teacher passing on info to mainly-passive group of students), some as a chance for open discussion, including the possibility of *gasp* disagreeing with one another, whereas for some it might just be the boring bit they have to put up with before we get round to having tea and biscuits.

The thing is, as long as we’re not all clear on what it is we have gathered together to do, how can we possibly define the ground rules we need in order to make whatever-it-is more likely to happen? If a group of friends has said they’re going to get together to watch the World Cup match on Friday night, then they know what they’ve set out to achieve and they can all do the sort of stuff that is helpful (e.g. turn up before the match starts, bring the beer or crisps or whatever it is you promised to bring) and refrain from doing the sort of stuff that would be unhelpful (e.g. standing right in front of the television screen).

But say it’s been more vague – say a bunch of friends were sitting around chatting one evening and Joe says: hey, what’s everyone doing Friday night?  Joe is thinking of the World Cup match, and to him it’s completely obvious that that’s what he’s talking about. But because it’s so obvious to him, he doesn’t think of spelling it out. Matt also has the match on his mind, and suggests they all come round to his place because he’s got one of those huge television screens. So the group make plans – who is or isn’t going to be able to come, who can give Jim a lift because he hasn’t got a car, does everyone have Matt’s address, etc. And on Friday night Matt finds, to his horror, that his lounge is full of giggling girls who are playing Charades and expecting the guys to join in. (Yes, I know, major sexist generalisation here. But as I’m a woman I’m allowed :)

Of course the bit about forgetting what we set out to do is not limited to groups or even to a minimum of two people. That bit is entirely possible for just one person on their own, and I’ve had plenty of those “what did I come into this room for” moments. I sometimes even have them when blogging – so, what was it I had in mind when I started this ramble about 1500 words ago?

I think I’ve covered most of what I had in mind, except for probably the trickiest one – friendship.

We become friends with people, but there are no ground rules. And mostly we don’t even state that we’re setting out to play this particular game – we just drift into it.

Most of the time, this somehow works. I guess we tend to become friends with people who have similar ideas about what friendship involves. We go through little tests along the way, and if someone survives these tests we choose to trust them more. For example, if you are a person who regards punctuality as highly important, you’re not very likely to become friends with someone who is always at least half an hour late, because such a person wouldn’t pass the first test – you’ll arrange to meet up, they won’t show up on time, and when 20 minutes have gone you’ll just storm off in a huff and that would be the end of that.

But sometimes there may be something in a person’s behaviour or attitude that you ignore for a long time – maybe because you like that person so much that you don’t want to make a big deal out of this one thing; or maybe because you are so needy and vulnerable that you don’t have it in you to challenge people; or maybe you’ve got an unwritten rule in your head that says you should accept friends as they are – so you ignore this thing until one day it becomes too much for you to bear, and your friend may be taken by surprise because they didn’t have a clue that you had a problem with this issue at all.

Or you discover that your unwritten rules clash to such an extent that you simply can’t play this game together.

You see, as a Christian I do believe in forgiving someone who hurts me, and continuing to forgive again and again and again – but if that person is going to carry on doing that, and if they are determined to regard that behaviour as a perfectly acceptable part of friendship, then it just doesn’t make sense to me to stay in such a friendship. If someone has an unwritten rule that says that if they’re my friend they have the right to do XYZ which I find extremely hurtful and totally unacceptable, then how can we be friends? I can forgive – that’s the easy bit. But it doesn’t mean I have to stick around for more of the same.

I was in an abusive relationship, many years ago, living with someone who claimed to love me (and in their own way, did love me) but every now and again would get drunk and become abusive. But at least they did acknowledge that it was wrong, they did show sincere remorse the next day when sober. It was clear to both of us that emotional/verbal/physical abuse do not belong in the game called “living together as a loving couple”.

End of ramble.

11 thoughts on “Do we know what game we’re playing? and what are the rules?

  1. I don't understand baseball. I like football better… especially this season while World Cup in on. Just wishing I'm in Africa. But … I do understand what you meant about playing different games, and the family unit comes to mind. I think its so vital that every member of a family unit knows what their directions are. It keeps unity intact.


  2. It seems as if in the past the fabric of society was woven much tighter; we all knew the expected rules of behavior when going into a social situation. Today's generation is so "all about me" that the rules of polite society are unraveling around us and the rules are not longer clear.


  3. i was thinking this morning that it's possible that by nature, some of us play different games than others. and trying to force the people playing a different game than me to play my game usually ends up in anger, bitterness, etc. when i write about personality types i invariably get someone on the thread who says that it's all silly to study that sort of thing because people just use it to judge others. which i'm sure some people do, unfortunately. but the goal should probably be more to understand the other person's game. if i'm playing baseball and this new person i've met is playing cricket, it might at first glance look like we're playing a pretty similar game. but then we start doing things that we think are totally natural and expected as game players and the other person ends up being shocked at our outrageous behavior. (it's not that we're actually being outrageous. it's just that we're playing different games and didn't realize it until that moment. in fact, we might not have even realized it then, but we certainly realized that something was greatly amiss.) i think learning more about the other person then helps us to go, oh, well the ball is coming at them i shouldn't expect them to _______, because they're not playing that game. i should expect them to _______. then we're no longer shocked at the other person's behavior but we can actually anticipate it and perhaps even understand it better, which will hopefully in turn enable us to respond in a way that brings even greater harmony rather than division. we'll work within the rules of the other person in order to communicate rather than insisting that they behave the way we want. granted, in a good friendship both parties start to figure out the other's game and learn to play it as needed. perhaps they're even able to blend their two games into one great new relationship that fully allows both parties to remain utterly true to themselves and their own means of operating but still communicating with someone different. in college we studied cross-cultural interactions and it reminds me a lot of that. i can go to china and talk all i want to people about stuff that they might find very interesting, … IF they understood english. i can get really upset and frustrated with them until they learn english so that we can communicate. or i can start to learn their language and over time we might learn a bit of each other's languages till we're at a point that we can finally communicate on the topic of interest. ok, sorry for blathering on. i just thought about this while i was doing dishes this morning and thought it might fit with the discussion. if it doesn't, feel free to ignore it. :-}


  4. hey, thank you very much for taking the time to blather on share your valuable thoughts – seriously, it's great to hear your thoughts on this, and I think there's a lot in what you're saying. it's like what I said at some point about how a person may be breaking my rule (about not answering your mobile phone when you're in the middle of a deep conversation) but it's only my rule, not a universal rule. and understanding what rules another person is playing by – that can really help in relating to them, because you can change your expectations accordingly. if we go back to the punctuality example, for me if I have a friend who I know is always late for everything, I just don't expect them to be on time and if we arrange to meet up I'll choose a place where I can sit comfortably and wait for them rather than standing around and getting more and more frustrated – I went out with a guy once who was always late, and I got into the habit of taking a book with me.the only time I see this not working is when the other person's rule says something like: it's ok to hit another person over the head :(


  5. agreed. which makes me think of folks that are rather rough around the edges. i think there are brusque personality types and to some extent you learn to just let things roll off your back from that person. (especially since their brusque behavior can often feel like a personal attack. there's a guy in our church that is this way. he thinks he's being helpful and instead people think he's attacking them when he's not at all.) but i also think it's fair, especially if you're in a position or relationship where this is an appropriate thing, to help a person understand how to not be so brusque. just because we're "saddled" with a particular personality type doesn't mean we want to keep the negatives of that type. it's often just that we're so "in" ourselves that we can't see any other way to go about things. so having someone come alongside and help us learn to mitigate our negatives, though maybe not taken well at first, is generally appreciated in the long run.


  6. yes…yes, there are people who just come across that way – whether it's due to their personality type, or their culture, or whatever – and one learns to live with that. (a bit like the punctuality thing – if I know that someone just talks a certain way, if I know that it's the way they talk to everyone, then I don't need to take it personally.)and yes, there are situations when you're in a position of being able to help someone learn to behave differently so that they'll upset people less. but hopefully one would do that gently and lovingly, right? and you wouldn't set out to keep yelling at them until they get the point?


  7. speaking the truth in love. the "in love" part is probably much more important than the "truth" part. both my son and i like to focus on "truth" and ignore the "love." i'd like to think that i'm getting better about that — one of those blessings of growing older and more mature. nathan, on the other hand, still doesn't quite get it. he'll shove the "truth" down your throat till you choke on it.


  8. Aaah… this bring about some fond memories, right after getting married. My wife and I have different rules when it came to punctuality, and in the beginning it was one of the reasons to get upset and get into an argument. It took a while to understand each others timing, but eventually we got along pretty well.


  9. Re-reading the whole thing and all the user posts here… makes me think of football again.Whether one is an American, an Australian (Kiwis included) or the rest of the world, they all love football. Just not the same rules and different shaped ball too. The Americans have their rules and body armour, the Aussies have Aussie rules, the Kiwis have All Blacks and the rest of the world is mesmerised by the current FIFA event.p/s Sorry, I really can't help thinking about football at the moment despite the topic is strongly linked with baseball (what is that? lol) By the way, England made it – barely.


  10. hey, I can't blame you for having football on your mind right now, with the world cup going on.and that stuff about the different games all called football, with such very different rules – it's interesting. I don't know a lot about the other ones – soccer is what I'm familiar with – but it seems to me that there are different levels of violence acceptable in different versions of football.and with this interesting thought, I'm off to bed – it's past 3am, getting late even for this night owl.


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