To a Fault: Meta-Game

Fault: Don't laugh much or have fun

Describe an experience: Please write a short story (approximately 2,000 characters) about a time in your life when this fault created a situation which had a negative impact on your life.
In my mind, fun is something I have to earn.

It took me years to allow myself to enjoy coming to fencing tournaments like the one I am competing in this weekend. It's expensive in a proper First World Problems kind of way. There's the coaching and the club fees, the equipment and the commute. Then there's the travel to the tournaments, typically air fare for our national events, plus the hotel for several days. And, of course, the registration for the event. A single weekend can cost up to $1000 easily, and to compete at the level I do, I need to do several of these competitions a year.

It adds up. And I don't deserve it.

It was worst when my son was fencing and we would go to Summer Nationals together. You'd think it would just be a treat, going together to Sacramento or Atlanta or Miami Beach. His events would be at one end of the week and mine at the other, so we had days and days in between to sight-see, swim, eat out, be together.

But I would torture myself about how much money I was spending, only to get on the strip and lose.

The summer we went to Sacramento, I had just turned 40, but I can't remember whether I had been able to qualify for the Veteran event. (I missed the qualifier when my father died, but there may have been another tournament that got me in.) What I remember is the total meltdown I had after I lost in whichever event I was competing in. I cried for hours and hours and hours that evening, devastated at not knowing why I had lost. What I did know was that I was wasting my family's money simply to play a game. One that I wasn't even very good at.

Much of the work that I have had to do in order to become a better fencer has involved convincing myself that it is okay to have fun. Even if I lose. Even if I do nothing but fence a pool of six and a single DE (as, in fact, I did today--low carbs and competition do not mix!)

But even then I am still cheating. I have made it my work to get myself to enjoy playing.
Alternative outcome: Write a short paragraph about what you might have done differently in that situation, to minimize the effect of this fault.
I could have quit back in 2005 at age 40 after fencing only two years. But I didn't.

I kept putting myself through the wringer, going to competitions, losing, watching the pit open out before me as the adrenaline low hit and my glucose plummeted. (Pro tip: low carb may be bad for winning, but it is fabulous for losing--the glucose pit simply isn't there!).

A few years ago, I had an even more explosive meltdown after one of the qualifier events than at Sacramento. I skipped Summer Nationals that year after telling myself, “I quit,” which seemed to help. When I came back, I was able to distance myself somewhat from the sense of being put to the test. And of course this past year I qualified for the World Veteran Championship USA team and got to go to Germany.

But I still worry about whether I deserve to have so much fun.

I can manage the self-talk better now. I tell myself that coming to competitions is like camp. It is important to be here and make friends with the other fencers. It is important to think of the competition not as a test, but as a place to learn. It is important to have some context in which I get to push myself physically in a way that is mentally demanding but not intellectual work.

It is the one context in which I allow myself to have anything close to fun.

Three of us who got knocked out early in the event were talking this afternoon, and one of the women made a rather rude joke. The other laughed and said, “Oh, yes, I have a group of women friends who get together and make that kind of joke all the time.”

I don't. All I have are the fencers. And, of course, Milo, who has made me laugh more in the past six months than I have in years. Okay, and some of my friends on Facebook who can get quite jolly after a few drinks. And my fiddle class.

But I notice almost every time I have a really great laugh that it is rare for me. Plus I have to have earned it.
Guidelines for General Improvement: Now that you've thought about how you might have behaved differently in that particular situation, please think about this fault in more general terms. How could you work on improving this fault in general, so that such situations do not repeat themselves?
Professor Peterson said something interesting in the second lecture this term for his “Maps of Meaning” course. He was talking about the way in which children are socialized to be able to play with other children, and how people mistakenly think of competition and cooperation as opposites. “They’re not!”

Sure, the purpose of a game like fencing is for one fencer in the event to win and everyone else to lose, but the game can only take place if everyone agrees to fence. For there to be a game at all, there need to be rules that the players agree to abide by. They have to cooperate at playing the game.

This is the most important lesson for children to learn: not How to Play the Game, but How to Play the Meta-game, the Game of Games that means you get to Play With Others. (If only my colleagues in academia who want to shout other colleagues down could understand this childhood lesson!)

I don't remember having many friends when I was little. I guess we moved a lot or something. I remember playing alone a lot of the time, or with my dog. What I remember vividly was how awful it was not being picked for the team games that we would have to play at school. The only way you got to play was if you were already good at the game; otherwise you were picked last and given a pointless position to play.

Whence, I would guess, my conviction to this day that the only way the other kids will let you play is if you can prove yourself worthy of being on the team.

Another of my Facebook friends commented on yesterday's exercise that I seem to find academia an uncomfortable place “of cognitive dissonance and social fear.” She's right, although I had not appreciated it until she said it. I am constantly afraid of being kicked out of the game, not being allowed to play.

What I don't understand is why this translates into my not deserving to have fun. Or telling ribald jokes with friends.
I am actually having a really good time at the tournament right now, Fencing Bear has been working hard on this fault for over a decade. But realizing how few friends I have to tell jokes with was telling. More to think about here...

--From Jordan Peterson's Self-Authoring: Faults program.

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