The Messiness Of Life

Just as I was about to begin this week’s meandering piece, I also happened to complete a remarkable piece of fiction that pointed me on a thoroughly different course. It’s funny how life works that way. We intend to go one way – and we take a completely different fork in the road. Fate jumps in and pushes us in one direction, while our brain is telling us to stay the course. We know what’s right – but then we do wrong. Or vice versa. Or upside down. Or inside out.

I’m not the quickest reader in the world and, especially if I’m involved in a well-written, thoughtful book, I tend to dawdle and re-read and linger much longer than I should. I found that particularly easy to do during the many weeks I spent with The Goldfinch, American author Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from last fall.

This is not a book for the faint of heart – and I would have a hard time recommending it to most people, not just for its doorstop-like 771 pages, but also for its sometimes sordid subject material, which involves some pretty horrid scenes of violence, illicit drug use, child endangerment, infidelity and more. That probably explains why a quick check of readers’ opinions on Amazon shows that a substantial percentage of consumer critics review the book very negatively.

On the flip side, for those with strong hearts, unsettled, questioning minds, fears about the future and puzzlement about the nature of love, this is a book that will likely stick in your brain for many, many years.

The main character in the novel, Theo Dekker, makes so many wrong-headed decisions in his life and is hit with so many cruel twists of fate, it’s hard to imagine he survives as long as he does. Constantly, he is met by brick walls where he is forced to make a choice between right and wrong – or, perhaps, the lesser of two evils – and it’s easy to cringe when we realize what direction he’s going to take when he’s forced to follow his misguided inclinations.

At one point he remarks, “We don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

Theo continues: “When in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: ‘Be Yourself.’ ‘Follow your heart.’”

For Theo – and for many of us – that’s where the trouble starts: “What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, sell-immolation, disaster?”

In our long, messy complicated lives, we’re constantly placed in positions where we must make both ethical and practical decisions that will set us on certain paths and, in turn, force us into subsequent situations where new decisions must be made. And, at each crossroads, we can look backwards and forwards to help guide us but, ultimately, our hearts and minds will take us where they choose.

Of course, we can use the combined wisdom of our past to help us make those decisions. Our education. Our religious convictions. The knowledge imparted by our spouses and parents and teachers and mentors and countless others. They all play some part in what we choose.

But there’s no denying our own being. For Theo, that being is most often a dark one who suffers the crushing of the world around him almost every moment of his life.

“No one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is catastrophe. The basic fact of existence – of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do – is catastrophe,” he ruminates.

Surrounded by that bleakness, however, Theo still manages to make his way, pulling something good out of the worst circumstances and, somehow, carrying on.

Because carrying on is what we all do, however much pain and hardship is involved along the way. For Theo, weighed down by unrelenting depression, he finds his own way to survive in the jungle, asking himself, “Does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end – and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?”

We all find joy in our own unique ways. We can share it with others, but their reaction to or acceptance of that joy will not be the same as ours, because their joy is found in a totally different space. We search for happiness all our lives, tripping and falling and wondering and questioning, sorting our way through the catastrophes of life and discovering what’s important and wonderful and life-affirming along the way.

As Theo discovers, life is short. “Fate is cruel, but maybe not random,” he ruminates. “Even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.”

Dive straight in. Get drenched. Because life is waiting for you.

Let The Games Begin

Years and years ago, Hasbro, one of the world’s largest toy and board game manufacturers, ran a series of television commercials promoting something called “Family Game Night.” At the time, I remember thinking what a cheesy way it was to pump up their fading board games like Monopoly, Clue, Life and Scrabble. Boy, was I wrong. Although the company has gone through some rough patches over the past few years, laying off large numbers of its American workers, the products it sells continue to remain popular.

Not only that, the company has also released four collections of Family Game Night video games for PlayStation, Wii and Xbox. On top of that, the idea was even spun off into a popular U.S. television series that has been running on The Hub (formerly Discovery Kids) for the past three seasons.

If you’ve forgotten the original concept, the idea was to gather your family around the table on one specific night each week to play board games. It sounds like something created by a desperate advertising company that had run out of new ideas to get people interested in games they probably already owned and that were sitting in the back of some dusty closet.

As hokey as the premise might be, over the past few years our family has actually gotten into the idea, although our game nights only occur maybe six times a year when the stars align perfectly and we manage to get a few of us in the same house together for an evening. That’s a rare event when your kids have their own lives and are all over the country doing their thing. Strangely enough, however, it’s now one of the events we enjoy most whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Family Nights at our household aren’t necessarily for the faint of heart. Things can get a little weird, especially as the evening drags on. Guests are sometimes involved – friends and other relatives – and that can take the bizarreness to some pretty epic levels. At times, the “game playing” can become an almost forgotten part of the actual Game Night, as the conversations and level of humour degenerate into some very strange territories. Usually, the whole event ends up imploding at some ungodly hour as we half-heartedly agree to call it a night.

In any case, it’s one of the few excuses we have to spend time together, other than the occasional mealtime or birthday celebration. It’s a crazy, busy world we all live in, one where planning get-togethers takes a backseat to all the other aspects of our lives. Nonetheless, it’s gratifying to know that holding one of these sporadic Family Game Nights can instantly re-bond us, giving us a chance to catch up on recent events, share some laughs and forget about all the other things that occupy our lives.

Unfortunately for Hasbro, I’m not sure many of the games we play actually come from any of their numerous companies, which include Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, but they certainly deserve some credit for the original idea, I suppose. On the other hand, I’m sure we’d be having these Family Game Nights even if some guy on Madison Avenue had never pitched that particular advertising idea to Hasbro almost 15 years ago.

If you’ve never had your own Family Game Night, why not give it a try? Dust off some of those old games you never thought you’d use again – or pick up something new and different. You might discover it’s just the thing to bring your family a little closer together, even if it’s just for one night. Roll the dice and let the games begin