The boy who didn’t know how play

by Gautam Raja

He never quite got the hang of rough-and-tumble, always retreating before it got too intense. Everything meant too much and weighed too heavy for such a small boy. But as he grew, he found kids just like he was—the sidelined, the teased, the pushed, the beaten. They formed a rag-tag bunch, some with so much to say with so little, some who hid behind a stream of words, all with wicked senses of humour that few knew about.

These were the warm, real people who didn’t know how to play. The people who were as savage about themselves as they were about others, people who loved to ask and discuss, “Why?”, who lived perhaps too long in dreams, both old and new. People who were sometimes just that little bit too intense for comfort.

And so the boy grew, shakily, fitfully into a man, and though he seems to have the hang of it, when games begin, he still cannot play. The rules are obscure and ever-changing and surprisingly cruel.

“This is a game!” calls the boy. “Why are we playing when it hurts?”

How they loved his insight when he wrote words for other people to speak, but when he turned that light at them, they shielded their eyes, faces curled in fear and rage, and he stepped back perplexed.

“But I thought it would help,” he said naively. After all, the game was disrespectful and driven by self-loathing. Without it was kindness , positivity, frankness. Kindness, above all. Without it, people could set and respect boundaries, but it isn’t part of the game to question the game. Upset and anger is addictive, and it’s easy to think, on the field, that happiness depends on what other people say or do. This is scary because other people rarely say or do what you want them to.

“Look at yourself!” shouts the boy from the sidelines. “You’re on the field, in between the lines, you’re chasing a ball you’ll never catch—you’re in the game!”

The boy can’t understand why the players think they have no choice but to play, when in fact they can stop any time they want. Everything is a choice. Outside the game, other people and other things do not cause our feelings, we cause them ourselves with our beliefs and our expectations. We choose to take a deep breath and be rational, or we choose to storm out of the room, slam a door and break into a hundred little pieces. We choose to scream until we get what we want.

In the game you get sham respect simply because of who you are, who you know, how much money you earn and how old you are. Outside the game, respect is earned; true respect with strong foundations, hewn from doing the right thing, standing up for others, and most important of all, standing up for yourself.

In the game, people play roles because they feel they have to. Out of guilt, out of fear of someone’s outbursts, out of a sense of duty. Outside the game, people look after themselves and because they are in a good place, can look after those around them from true desire to help. Put on your oxygen mask before helping others. Taking time to stay conscious and present is not selfish.

The boy still has to understand that standing on the sidelines and shouting to people to stop is part of the game. “Expectation is control”, even if the desired outcome is the “right” thing. The ball is round and the game lasts a lifetime. That’s all we know.

First published in Gulf News, June 9, 2015