Be the Game Board

Note: I wrote this for my email subscribers a few weeks ago and am just now getting around to posting it here. If you want to receive similar stuff in your inbox 1-2 times a month, click here. ~

Happy August!

And boy, is August here with a vengeance in Northern Virginia. When I stepped outside to run early this morning, the humidity was 97%. Sixteen miles later, I felt every bit of it.

Many of you know I’m training for my second marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, here in DC in October. This is my grudge match—I had to defer last year’s entry due to injury. I’m excited for this hometown race, known for being well-run with lots of cheering crowds. The only downside is the timing—race in October means long runs in July, August and September. I keep telling myself that these hot, humid, hilly miles are building mental toughness, but in all honesty, every time I step outside into air that feels like it’s already been breathed, I want to cry. (Come on, my people are from Northern Europe. I’m built for permafrost.)

I was running recently on one of those hot and humid days when I passed a man in his 70s. We exchanged a quick greeting and as he shuffled by he said, “Beautiful morning.” At first I was dumbfounded: Beautiful? I can literally wring out my shirt right now. But then I decided to get outside myself and really take a look around. And it was beautiful. The sun was still low in the sky and casting lengthy shadows. The birds were singing. The green on the trees was rich and deep.

This weekend I was in North Carolina for a family reunion, and again I went for a morning run—later than I’d hoped, so the sun was beating down on me from the first step. Again it was humid and gross, and I found myself longing for crisp November, or even frigid February. But this time I remembered my running buddy from the week before, and I let myself really look at the deserted country road, the soft blue sky, and the meadow fuzzy with mature grass:

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I realized how often I get trapped inside my own experience—how easy it is to be stuck there without considering other perspectives. To put it in religious language, this is perhaps a foundational human sin or shortcoming—to see our own narrative as the only valid one. Much of our consumer culture is designed to feed this individualistic focus—marketing, social media, even news sites serve up targeted messages designed just for us: our preferences, our prejudices, and our longings. This sunny, soupy day was bearing down on me with its oppressive heat, so how could it also be beautiful? Yet it was. (Not to mention the gratitude that comes from being able to put one foot in front of the other, breathe clean air into lungs, and move slowly but relentlessly forward.)

Recently when I wrote to you, I shared a story from the wonderful book The Art of Possibility. Permit me to share one more tidbit from that book. The authors, Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, talk about shifting our perspective such that we see ourselves not as a pawn in a game, nor as the strategist of the game, pulling all the strings, but as the game board itself, “the framework for the game of life around you”:

The purpose of naming yourself as the board, or as the context in which life occurs to you, is to give yourself the power to transform your experience of any unwanted condition into one in which you care to live. We said your *experience*, not the condition itself. But of course once you do transform your experience and see things differently, other changes occur.

When you identify yourself as a single chess piece—and by analogy, as an individual in a particular role—you can only react to, complain about, or resist the moves that interrupted your plans. But if you name yourself as the board itself, you can turn all your attention to what you want to see happen, with none paid to what you need to win or fight or fix. …One by one, you bring everything you have been resisting into the fold. You, as the board, make room for all the moves, for the capture of the knight *and* the sacrifice of your bishop… for your miserable childhood *and* the circumstances of your parents’ lives… Why? Because that is what is there. It is the way things are.

On a superficial level, seeing yourself as the game board can seem narcissistic. But as I’ve considered this analogy, I find it provides an expansive space for me to receive life in all its complexity, not denying the unpleasant things, but also not letting them be the sum total of the experience.

Of course, things happen to us in life that are much more grave than a scheduled run on a humid day. This shift in perspective is very difficult work—lifetime work. But on a humid day in, with sweat rolling down my back, I got a startling and lovely glimpse that it was possible.

Peace, Joy and Yes,

MaryAnn