It’s all fun and games, until…

“That game you’ve been playing – is it Candy Crush?” my husband asked.

“Not exactly…This is Yes Chef…” I answered.

“It has vegetables and healthy foods instead of candy!” my daughter helpfully explained.

Playing Candy Crush on iPad Photo by flickr user m01229   Used with permission under CC BY 2.0

Playing Candy Crush on iPad
Photo by flickr user m01229
Used with permission under
Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0

Yep. I am playing a game that is mainly based on luck, and that almost seems constructed for the purpose of addictive play. So, Candy Crush or not, the main effective difference is the graphics.

I managed to stop playing altogether for a short time, but then I got a bad cold, and I found myself picking up the iPad again.

I am going to try to avoid making a blanket statement about gaming here, because I have a friend who is an avid social gamer, and he has gotten to know people by gaming, and so I will allow that not all gaming is created equal. But what I am playing are a handful of solo games that are dominated by luck, or timers, or creating little fake parks. And I cannot pretend that what I am doing is anything other than a complete waste of time.

Why do I call it a “waste of time”? Well, for one, playing these games doesn’t stimulate any thought whatsoever other than how to better play that particular game. These are the soft drinks of the entertainment world – nothing but empty calories. They fill up my brain space while I’m playing them, and yield absolutely no benefit. Even most TV will yield at least a thought or two. Even if those thoughts are along the lines of “LOL! Remember pay phones?” when watching an early episode of the X-Files. Even a thought like that can lead to more thoughts, which can lead to writing, or having a conversation with an actual human being, or some other constructive thing.

Which feeds into another reason why the games I play are a waste of time: When I am playing the game, I’m not doing anything that would actually yield any kind of fruit. There are dozens of things that I could be doing instead that would be a better choice. A few months ago I was ill and not fit for writing or housework or much in the way of deep thinking, so I went looking for a series of mystery novels, and found Laurie King’s series featuring Mary Russell. And that led to some thoughts about imperialism, and wealth, and entitlement, and so on. Thoughts I would have had neither stimulus nor space for had I been fixated on “purple, purple, green!”

I suppose that someone is likely to be thinking around now, “But [Candy Crush, Yes Chef, whatever similar game] stimulates critical thinking! It’s a strategy game!” If it were a strategy game, you would be able to win every time. Instead, as you level up, you are certain to lose more often than you win. This is called intermittent rewards, and it manipulates the player to play more. Sudoku, as a contrasting example, always has a solution.

Admittedly, there are some times when I feel like turning off my inner social critic for a little bit. But games are not the only option. When I am needing a break, folding clothes or tidying the den or sending a quick postcard is a much better choice. And when I am sick and exhausted, even television is a better choice than playing the kinds of video games that I compulsively turn to.

As much as I want to give up video games altogether, there is something else that I desire even more: I am hoping that I can stop acting as if I’ve done something unforgivable every time I play a video game instead of doing something productive.  That shame spiral is such an awful feeling that I find myself trying to escape it… by playing more video games. I actually use the video game to avoid talking to God about my feelings about the video games.

There is nothing that I can do that places me outside of God’s love, nothing I can do that God cannot forgive. When I start getting scared to talk about something with God – when I start to resist praying – then I can be sure that I am on the wrong track. If God wants me to do something better with my time than play an addictive matching game, it is even more true that God loves me even when I am running away. Which is the best reason to turn off the game, stop running, and start listening.

Learning to forgive – and to be forgiven

In Tales of Wonder, Huston Smith offers this definition of Christianity:

What is the minimum requirement to be a Christian? If you think Jesus Christ is special, in his own category of specialness, and you feel an affinity to him, and you do not harm others consciously, you may consider yourself a Christian.

I have immense respect for Huston Smith – he is a man who has sought after God with great passion, and in chronicling his search he blazed trails in post-modernism and in religious studies. Nevertheless, I believe that his definition of Christianity has a couple of problems with it. I will focus here on one: “… and you do not harm others consciously…” with special attention to the word “consciously.”

There is a great variation amongst consciences. Some give little thought to others, and so are unconsciously hurting others constantly in ways that most persons would consider obvious. One of the aims of Christianity is to broaden the consciousness of Christians: we learn to see ourselves more deeply, as well as to see a broader number of people more deeply than we have before – until we grow into an embodiment of God’s love for all people. So for some Christians, it becomes very hard to hurt another person without consciousness of it – because consciousness becomes so deep and broad.

When I turn on a light switch, I am conscious of hurting my sisters and brothers in West Virginia whose streams are choked with debris from mountaintop removal mining. When I get into my car and drive it, I am conscious of the Pacific Islanders already being impacted by rising sea levels, conscious of the animals whose habitats have been chopped into tiny parcels by asphalt roads, conscious of the benefits of the once good autoworking jobs disappearing. And so on. In the 21st century, we are so globally connected that there is little I can do without being tied to another in some way. And as a member of the ever dwindling American middle class, I am often tied to others in a way that benefits me to their detriment.

I am trying to lessen the instances in which I am consciously harming others. But at the same time, I am continuing to broaden and deepen in consciousness – and so more continues to be demanded of me in order to meet the standard of not harming others consciously. Christianity by Huston Smith’s definition is for me a moving target – if he is correct then I have never been a Christian, and can never hope to be one.

Instead, I take refuge in the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: “… forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…” We are ever in debt to God – and to many others. In teaching me to pray for forgiveness, Jesus teaches me that he expects I will continue to stand in need of forgiveness – and that it is always available to me. In teaching me that God’s forgiveness for me is linked to my forgiveness of others, Jesus teaches me that my judgment is what stands most in the way of my own healing. How readily do I model forgiveness when others fail me? When I fail myself?

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed for us to the Father, forgives your sins by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’m sorry, part 2

I’m sorry.  I misled you.  Things are seldom as straightforward as they seem, and upon reflection, I oversimplified a much more complicated story.

In a previous post, I led with a story that was totally accurate, except for one thing – it was told without the context of “what happened next.”  What happened next was not so clear cut – in fact, what happened next might undercut the black and white “just take responsibility” angle that I pursued in that post.

So, ironically, I am in the position of admitting that I made a mistake (hasty and unreflective blogging) when posting about the importance of admitting your mistakes.

So – here is, as Paul Harvey would have it, the rest of the story:

When the day finally came for me to go to court, it was snowing.  And while admittedly my flannel sheets did not make it easier for my young self to roll out of bed, the main issue was that I was driving to the Fairfax County courthouse from Richmond, which residents of Virginia can tell you involves driving on Interstate 95.  In my case, driving towards D.C. during the rush hour, now in the snow.  Given the weather, the time I had allowed was totally inadequate, even if I had not gotten lost looking for the courthouse parking deck, and then lost again looking for the appropriate courtroom in the courthouse.  All in the pre-cell phone days.

Needless to say, I was late.  I had called my father to let him know when I was leaving Richmond, and he headed straight to the courthouse to meet me there.  And so I was not in court to plead guilty, as had been my intent.

Apparently, in traffic court, they ask everyone to plea first, and then after they have sorted through everyone, sentencing the “guilty” along the way, they get around to the business of trying the “not guilty.”  So when the judge called my name, my father stood up, and explained that I was on my way, in the snow, from Richmond (in his best “please be merciful on my eldest daughter” tone.)  And the judge said, “That’s fine.  Let’s assume she’d plead not guilty, and that she’ll be here by the time we have gotten to the hearings.”

I got to the courtroom and found my father.  I was in a panic, because the judge was calling on someone with the last name “R_____,” and my last name began with “C.”  Dad assured me that it was alright, and the judge would talk to me later.

“Dad!” I said, “I was going to plead guilty!”

“Hush!” he said. “You’re lucky you are not in trouble for being late to court!”

Then the time came for my hearing.  I was asked to stand.  The judge called the police officer, and asked him if he had actually seen the accident take place.  He said that he had not.  The judge asked if there was anyone present that had been at the scene.  There was not.  It was then that I spoke up, and said to the judge, “Excuse me, your honor, but may I say something?” The judge replied, “It would be better for you if you didn’t!”  And then after a pause to see if I would in fact ignore his advice, he declared, “We find the defendant not guilty. You are free to go.”

Walking away from the courthouse, I did not feel “not guilty.” I felt defeated.  I confessed to Dad that I felt dishonest – I should have taken responsibility, but my general fear of authority figures kicked in, and I had been unable to keep talking after his admonishment for speaking up in the first place.  Dad’s take was that it would have been no use – I would have gotten some points on my license and paid some small fine, his insurance payments would have gone up even more – but what would be the benefit of it?

The benefit, I guess, would have been a delay in my initiation into the realm of moral ambiguity – I wasn’t equipped to know what to make of my inability, in the end, to take responsibility.  And I still am not, in some ways – I still have to tell the story in such a way as to emphasize – “If I had been there earlier, I would have plead guilty!”  But I was not, and I did not – instead, I allowed a presumed not guilty plea to become a not guilty verdict.

Which all leads to the question – if I know that God has forgiven me, why do I have such a hard time forgiving myself?  So much so that I have separated this story in my mind into two separate, unrelated stories – a story about my freshness and integrity startling a young, but already jaded police officer, and a story that really no one wants to hear, because… it’s complicated.  My shame over this incident is sufficient that I have held it apart from God, refusing to let this memory be redeemed.

What if, instead, I were to imagine God knowing exactly what I would do in that situation? What if I needed to learn what I would do in that situation?  And what if that moment were to be a moment of grace, of understanding how easy it is not to take responsibility, and finding love and forgiveness for those who cannot, or do not take responsibility, even before they can find forgiveness for themselves, even before they know they need forgiveness?  What if – what if this moment of moral failure could become a moment of redemption and reconciliation?  And what if, finally, I were brought to the realization that grace is all about learning to accept being given a not guilty verdict when you know that you deserved to be found guilty?