Unwinnable Games

A sermon presented by Deb Bodeau at First Parish Church in Lexington on 29 August 1993

Order of Service

Prelude   “Song Without Words #2,” Op. 19, No. 2    F. Mendelsohn

Hymn  “Morning Has Broken” (green, #266)

Opening Words and Candlelighting

Unison Affirmation

Welcome and Announcements

Offertory “Song Without Words #22,” Op. 53, No. 4   F. Mendelhsohn

Anthem  “Invictus”          William Ernest Henley (lyrics)  Bruno Huhn (music)

Reading from All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren

Anthem  “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha

Meditation from the Tao Te Ching, #13

Hymn  “Unrest” (green, #53)

Sermon  “Unwinnable Games”           Deb Bodeau

Hymn  “Turn Back” (green, #196)

Closing Words from the Tao Te Ching, #9

Postlude “Fourfold Amen”            F. J. Cooke


From All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren

I could lie there as long as I wanted, and let all the pictures of things a man might want run through my head, coffee, a girl, money, a drink, white sand and blue water, and let them all slide off, one after the other, like a deck of cards slewing slowly off your hand.  Maybe the things you want are like cards.  You don’t want them for themselves, really, though you think you do.  You don’t want a card because you want the card, but because in a perfectly arbitrary system of rules and values and in a special combination of which you are already a part the card has meaning.  But suppose you aren’t sitting in a game.  Then, even if you do know the rules, a card doesn’t mean a thing.  They all look alike.

So I could lie there, though I knew that I would get up after a spell – not deciding to get  up but just all at once finding myself standing in the middle of the floor just as later on, I would find myself, with a shock of recognition, taking coffee, changing a bill, handling a girl, drawing on a drink, floating in the water.  Like an amnesia case playing solitaire in the hospital, I would get up and deal myself a hand, all right.  Later on.  But for the present I would lie there and know I didn’t have to get up, and feel the holy emptiness and blessed fatigue of a saint after the dark night of the soul.  For God and Nothing have a lot in common.  You look either one of them straight in the eye for a second and the immediate effect on the human constitution is the same.


From the Tao Te Ching, #13, translation by Stephen Mitchell

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.


Not quite two years ago, I had a life-changing experience.  I got out of a game I had no hope of winning, a game that on the one hand gave meaning and order to my life and on the other drained away my life energies so that I could not truly enjoy its benefits.  Today I’d like to share some of my reflections on my experiences of leaving that unwinnable game and of learning to live without it.


Let me start by recalling some of what we usually mean by a game – a structure for certain kinds of actions, with rules and strategies and roles for both luck and cleverness.  We may speak nostalgically of the games we played as children – checkers and parcheesi and endless games of Monopoly and strange hybrid games with pieces from several others, with complex rules we made up – and sometimes continue to play them as adults, either to get back in touch with our child-selves or because we’ve developed a more mature understanding of the rules and strategies.  But we also speak of games in the adult world – “the games people play.”  My dictionary mentions “the newspaper game” as an example, but you can fill in almost anything you want.  A game is something you might choose to pour your efforts into, a pastime.  The games of sport or skill we play or watch serve as metaphors for the observation that we’re constantly playing games in this larger sense, worrying about whether we really understand the rules and about how we’re doing.

The games I want to talk about today are those for which our own rules are internal and unwritten, developed with the help of family, friends, colleagues, and our society at large.  These are the games we use to define ourselves and earn our sense of self-esteem, of being worthy of consideration, of leading a life that’s worth living.  These are the games in which we develop a sense of being ahead or behind in life, of accumulating points or losing them with every action we take.  Two of the major games are the approval game and the achievement game.  These are the games I have observed often (perhaps because I resonate with them) in this congregation of sensitive and driven people.  My personal experience was with the approval game; my experiences with the achievement game have been as a part of winning approval.

In the approval game as I played it, I had a sense of getting something valuable any time anyone spoke well of me, and of being diminished as a person when anyone disapproved of something I did.  Criticism put my sense of personal worth or value into question.  This gave total strangers some amount of power over me.  Those close to me held even more power, because they knew more about me that they could criticize, so I felt wary of revealing anything important about myself.  Because it was important to feel above reproach, I felt constrained in what I could say or do.  But when I received praise, I felt a sense of relief that almost brought tears to my eyes; I felt safe and sure in an unsure world, and I felt that I had a place in the world.

Games you can’t win

The problem with the approval game, the achievement game, or any of a variety of other games people play, is that “You just can’t win.”  How much approval is enough?  OK, maybe the approval I receive from doing this task or being pleasant to that nasty person is enough to justify what I get today, but what about tomorrow?  and what about offsetting my childhood peccadilloes, for which I still feel disapproval and shame?  How much achievement is enough?  Have I really accomplished enough to justify the gifts of fortune?  Why haven’t I achieved as much as that person over there?  If  I’m finally recognized as the world leader in my field, can I manage to hold that title until I die?  What makes these game unwinnable is that they’re open-ended – there’s never a box score and a sense of “the season’s over, but wait until next year.”  Only death is a sure escape, but since “whoever dies with the most toys wins,” one can’t stop playing until that last moment.

What happens when playing an unwinnable game is the source of one’s sense of personal worth?  Such a game is serious business – if doing well in the game is how I feel that I have a right to exist, it’s a matter of life and death.  From personal experience, I can tell you a lot about the negatives.

It has a corrosive effect on relationships with other people.  They’re either the audience (and they’d better be ready to applaud on cue) or other players.  If they’re other players, they may be teammates, valuable for the contributions they make towards one’s progress but basically interchangeable, or competitors.  They may not know they’re one’s competitors – I doubt if Mother Theresa has a clue how many people judge themselves against her and feel diminished by the process – but they are living, breathing standards against whom one cannot help but judge oneself.  And it’s hard not to feel anger towards one’s competitors, to envy their achievements, and to rejoice in their failures.  This effect is hidden most of the time, but sometimes is openly acknowledged.  In an interview in The Boston Globe, Nolan Ryan said, “I don’t like this camaraderie thing.  Opposing players sometimes think I’m not friendly.  But I don’t want to know anyone I play against.  I don’t want to have any feelings for them, because they’re paid to beat me.”  An essential feature of playing a game well is shutting out anything extraneous to the playing, and that includes shutting out awareness of the essential humanity of the audience and other players.

It also means shutting out awareness of one’s own humanity.  So if you’re dealing with someone who’s treating you like a gamepiece on their internal playing board, you might take some comfort in the fact that they’re treating themselves no better.  I find this cold comfort, however, because they don’t feel bad about the way they treat themselves – this is just how life is.

Playing an unwinnable game has a similar corrosive effect on one’s relationship to one’s own experience.  It’s hard to stay in the moment, to appreciate what the moment has to offer, because one has to defend and improve one’s position.  Any success is only provisional and temporary.  Resting on one’s laurels is not an option.  An individual who contributes to a good cause may feel a sense of connection to a larger endeavor and to other people who support that cause, but if that person’s game is to change the world, the pleasure of feeling connected is diminished, even discounted, because too many battles remain to be fought.

Leaving the game

If this sounds merely exhausting, I’ve understated the situation.  Playing an unwinnable game drains time and energy, not only from the player, but from those who love and support them.  This is what eventually led me to get out of the approval game.  I was forced to face the effects of being caught up in that game on my husband Doug and on our relationship.  I did not care about the effects on me, and I did not feel unhappy.  Frantic, yes; unhappy, no.  In fact, I felt far more unhappy – not to mention outright terrified – at the prospect of setting limits on how much I might do to seek approval and to avoid disapproval.  But the costs had gotten too high.  So – here I simplify a long and complicated story – I petitioned the universe for all the approval points I’d ever need and promptly received them.  And just like that, I was out of the approval game.  (I know this sounds mysteriously quick and simple.  It actually involved a lot of hard work in preparation.  If you want to learn more about the technology behind this, Doug and I will be offering our magic course again next spring.)

Now after all the negatives I’ve described, getting out of an unwinnable game must sound wonderful.  And it was.  I no longer had the shaky experience of being between rungs on the ladder; I could feel the ground under my feet.  It was also awful.  I had had good reason to be terrified.  Leaving the approval game deconstructed my life for at least a year.  It was hard to feel motivated to do anything.  Events that had felt meaningful lost all significance.  Much of the time I was either depressed or running on autopilot.  I didn’t feel connected to my life.

So I’ve learned the hard way what some of the positive aspects of playing an unwinnable game are.  First and foremost, the approval game provided an underlying order or structure in which I could set goals and priorities.  It gave me a way to experience my activities as meaningful.  It kept all the cards from looking alike.  (By the way, its unboundedness was essential to this.  If it had been bounded, I might have won and thus stepped outside it, and it could not have been a source of order to my life as a whole.)  The approval game gave me a way to deal with all the chaos of life by feeling that I knew and had some control over where I stood on the ladder.  It gave me a way to channel my energies, to deal with “the fierce unrest seething at [my] core.”

Another positive aspect is belonging.  Our society seems to value unwinnable games.  From leaving the approval game (and not allowing myself to buy into any other unwinnable game), I have a sense of having stepped beyond the pale, of having become alien.  Organizations take advantage of the common unwinnable games of approval and achievement to get their members to invest unbounded amounts of time and energy.  As a general rule, corporations tend to take advantage of achievement games while volunteer organizations such as the church tend to take advantage of approval games.  Without the hook of an unwinnable game, I feel better able to pick and choose where to invest my energies, but I also feel like an outsider.  The rules of an organization’s game don’t resonate with the rules of an internal game I’m playing.  On some fundamental level, I haven’t “bought in,” and I know this even when the people around me don’t recognize it.

A third positive aspect is understanding and identifying with others who are playing their own (possibly very different) unwinnable games.  Related to playing an unwinnable game is supporting a lost cause.  Supporters of a lost cause feel a sense of nobility that obscures and, in their minds and those of the people they inspire, compensates for the fact that they’re not seeking to invest their energies wisely.  I can’t identify with such people any more.  What often strikes me about the staunch defenders of lost causes is not their nobility, but how they want me to be their audience as they do their own versions of “The Impossible Dream.”  There is more celebration of – and social support for – striving for a lost cause than achieving limited victories.

Having lived without an unwinnable game for a while, I’ve come to believe that what such a game is good at is binding together deeper values, values for certain kinds of experiences.  An unwinnable game provides a structure in which those values can coexist and conflicts between values can be resolved.  It becomes a destructive force only when it comes to take precedence over those underlying values, when it replaces what it originally supported.

Deeper values

For a long time after I got out of the approval game, I had a hard time getting in touch with my deeper values.   Having lost the structure that bound them together, I found myself wondering if they even existed, whether anything really mattered to me.  Slowly, I began to rediscover some of my underlying values and to experience them more directly in my everyday life.  As I did, I discovered how having them bound up in an unwinnable game had obscured them from me.  For example, I found that I value friendship, fellowship, communications and connections with others directly, not because they net me sources of approval or because being someone’s friend means I’m a nice person.  I found that I value certain aspects of my work directly, rather than for the approval my work might elicit from colleagues and coworkers.  I found that I value other aspects indirectly at best, insofar as they’re what I have to do to get to the aspects I do value.

I discovered that I could seek experiences I value more directly, and cut out (or cut down on) activities that drain my energies without giving me the experiences I value.  This means paying less attention to some people, because I don’t feel a sense of connection with them and no longer care what they think of me or what someone else might think of my not paying attention to them.  I’m not as generally “nice” as I used to be, but I’m able to give more to the people I do feel a strong connection with.  Similarly, there are some aspects of my work I’m no longer as good at, because I get more satisfaction out of other activities.

I also found that I could still use the structures of the approval and achievement games.  The results I see from my actions – approval, disapproval, success, failure – are important feedback that keep me grounded in the real world.  I haven’t come to ignore or have contempt for that feedback.  In fact, I’m able to pay more careful attention to it, since I no longer fear that it will imply that I have no worth as a human being.  I can still take inspiration from songs such as “The Impossible Dream” and mythic images of hero figures.  Such songs and images give voice to some of my fundamental values.  But my identification with those inspiring images is limited by the relation between the values that animate those images and reality:  no matter how heavenly the cause, I’m not going to drag someone else into hell with me.

My experience of leaving my unwinnable game was ultimately positive – I stopped hemorrhaging energy and got in better touch with my deeper values.  In large part, I believe this was because I left the game voluntarily and in the middle of a rich and complex life, a life that I was able to build because the game had given me a way of organizing my values and marshaling my energies.  Some people are forced out of their games unwillingly, by illness or impending death, by changes in the organization which has tied their games to its own, by the deaths of key players.  If the timing is wrong, it might take them a long time to recover.  Or they may not recover; they may lack the energy or the time or the life experience to get in touch with their deeper values.  This was the case for my mother, who spent much of her life seeking her father’s approval.  His death and her own battle with cancer made it impossible for her to continue playing her own unwinnable game, but she didn’t have the time or energy to recover a sense of what really mattered to her.

What can one do to prepare for the possibility of being forced out of the game that has provided structure and meaning to one’s life?  The best analogy I can find is preparation for retirement.  A satisfying job binds together continuing contacts with other people, a structure for the workday and workweek, intellectual stimulation, and a sense of contributing to some larger whole.  No wonder it’s hard to leave a satisfying job.  The person nearing retirement is counseled to cultivate friendships outside of work, to develop outside interests and activities that will give structure to each day and week, to look for ways to make a contribution to the community.  By the same token, the person considering leaving an unwinnable game might contemplate what values are bound up in that game and investigate other ways of living out those values.  Rather than looking to the game to provide feelings of meaning and nobility, one might look for ways to experience those feelings directly.


My experience has taught me that it’s possible to get out of an unwinnable game.  It’s also taught me that unwinnable games have their uses, their benefits as well as costs, and that it’s unwise to try to get out of an unwinnable game prematurely.  But for many of us who play unwinnable games, the time will come to leave, either because the costs have grown too great or because we are forced out.  By recognizing that fact and preparing for that eventuality, we can indeed be masters of our fates and captains of our souls.

Closing Words

From the Tao Te Ching, #9

Fill your bowl to the brim
 and it will spill.
 Keep sharpening your knife
 and it will blunt.
 Chase after money and security
 and your heart will never unclench.
 Care about people’s approval
 and you will be their prisoner.

 Do your work, then step back.
 The only path to serenity.