My grandfather taught me to play chess when I was a little girl. I couldn’t have been any older than six, for I wasn’t in school yet and we’d play during the day in between his patients (he had a home office medical practice) with a wooden chess set that he kept in a neat wooden box in the bottom drawer of his desk.
I remember being very impressed with the way that the board unfolded on its little hinges and how all the pieces had felt bottoms so that they could move smoothly across the squares without scratching.
I also remember him patiently correcting my moves “no Steph, the knight moves either two squares up and one square sideways, not cat-a-corner, that’s the bishop.” And he’d laugh over my anger over a piece being “taken,” not because I was mad that he’d won the piece, but because I was upset that he’d taken the piece away from its “family.”
But he was nothing if not a good teacher, and I learned the game well in spite of my grandmother’s concerns that it wasn’t a kids game, and my mother assuring me that I would find it boring and my own trepidations about splitting up the ‘families’ every time we played (though I always found it reassuring when the game was over and all the pieces could be put back in their respective family compartments).
In fact I learned it so well that as I got older I began seeing any sort of complex interaction with another person as a sort of endless series of chess moves in games that were being played simultaneously on a board that looked suspiciously like life. Sometimes I could get to where I wanted to go simply by moving a pawn one space. Other times it took multiple “jumps” with my knight in order to save the situation, or occasionally I’d have to come at the situation from a new angle – sort of like a bishop – or plow straight ahead regardless of the consequences like a castle. And then there were the moments when I could sweep in with a beautiful series of unexpected moves – like a queen – and sweep the board in triumph.
But not only did I make moves designed to help me “win” the situation, it also became apparent that in life, just like in chess, when a person made a certain move; when they did or said a certain thing; there seemed to be only a limited number of ‘moves’ that I could make in response to it; at least if I wanted to “win” the game (or at least score the piece).
In fact, just like there are some professional chess players who memorize all the moves of famous chess matches; I began to see repeating patterns in particular interactions and relationships.
Each time I ‘played’, even though I was playing different game and against a different person, when the other person would make a certain kind of move (the opening move from a particular type of match) – I would react/respond in the same way as I was ‘supposed’ to or at least in the way that I had before.
But there was just one problem – with both of us making the same kinds of moves, the end result was inevitably predictable. I KNEW how it was going to turn out long before the game was over because logic dictated that these particular moves were the only moves that could be made in response to the other person’s moves. But uncertain of what else could be done – of how else to react – I would continue to make the moves, even if I knew that it was going to be a disaster.
There was one particular game that I remember well; a game of repeating personal interactions where I thought that I had worked through a particular issues and a similar situation would arise (only with a different person). The details would be different; the intensity of the situation would change from situation to situation – but the end result of the game was always the same; stalemate, with both sides hurt and blaming the other of being controlled and manipulated because of the way the game had been played.
While this particular game had been repeating throughout my lifetime with different people, for some reason – this one time – everything was intensified tenfold. This time when everything fell apart at the end – I was devastated. It hurt worse than anything I could ever remember and as usually, one of the first things I started doing was analyzing my game.
I had played the game exactly the way it was supposed to have been played – the only way it COULD be played. What had I done to deserve this kind of misunderstanding and pain? Why did it hurt so bad? What mistakes had I made to bring that sort of situation on myself? How could I make sure that it would never happen again?
I struggled with these questions; searching for answers; beating myself up over the missteps and mistakes I’d made, and just when I thought I’d figured it out; just when I thought I had a handle on it – it happened again! And while this time involved a different person in a different situation – the moves were the same. I could SEE it even as it was unfolding, and this time I saw the glaring similarities to the first game when I was no more than halfway through. How on earth had I managed to get into the same situation again? And wouldn’t you know it, once I’d gotten the board set up and all the pieces laid out – it started all over again!
The third time was the charm however. After the first moves had been made and I realized that the same damned game was beginning again, it dawned on me that something had to change unless I wanted to voluntarily go through that same hell again.
And that was it you see – when the third time rolled around, it finally dawned on me that it wasn’t the choices I made in response to these individuals’ decisions and reactions that mattered. It didn’t even matter what pieces I was choosing to play with. It was the game itself that was to blame.
It was the game; the conditioning of a lifetime (or even of lifetimes) that said that when you are confronted with THIS situation (or THIS person in a different form) you have to react THIS way; habits of a lifetime that were kicking in; responding to a situation that kept presenting itself to me in different forms.
It was then that I realized that in order to learn this particular lesson I had to make a completely different move, because in a way they had been right – I WAS controlling and manipulating. So had they been – though neither of us had been doing it intentionally mind you, but because that was the way that the game is played. You can’t play chess (successfully) without knowledge of the moves and an idea of how the other side will probably react if you make them.
Anyway – this new move was a move only I could make – it was a move inside of my own head – a move to not let what the person did affect me. Not to take it personally (even though it sure as hell felt like it). In short – it was deciding not to react; not to play the game.
And what do you know – once I had decided not to play everything changed.
And maybe that’s how it works in different games; maybe even in different lifetimes (if you believe in such a thing). There is something that we’ve been too stubborn to learn; something that we respond to the same way over and over again because we’ve been conditioned to believe that that is the only way that the game can be played (that when someone does this we have to do that) and it is something we are destined to repeat until we can simply make a decision not to play the same game again; not to make the same knee-jerk reactions.
Then and only then can we let go of the need to control the board and predict the next move (ours or theirs) and let go of the urge to be offended by some move that we don’t expect and finally get on with the really important stuff, like moving on in our own spiritual development as well as working together to make the world a better place.