The Game of Life

The Game of Life

I can’t imagine a better beginning to this discussion of the poignant dilemma intrinsic to modern human society than this eloquent quotation from Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize Lecture in 1964.

This evening I would like to use this lofty and historic platform to discuss what appears to me to be the most pressing problem confronting mankind today. Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success. He has produced machines that think and instruments that peer into the unfathomable ranges of interstellar space. He has built gigantic bridges to span the seas and gargantuan buildings to kiss the skies. His airplanes and spaceships have dwarfed distance, placed time in chains, and carved highways through the stratosphere. This is a dazzling picture of modern man’s scientific and technological progress.

Yet, in spite of spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.

That the world is morally and spiritually poor is not new. The world was morally and spiritually depraved at the time of Jesus, which is why his message remains as significant in today’s world, as it was in his. The remarkable thing is that our “spectacular strides in science and technology” have not really changed anything regarding our spiritual wellbeing. If anything, “progress” is making things worse. At least people in Jesus’ day weren’t facing the specter of a denatured environment. Why, despite all our technological achievements have our lives not improved spiritually?

To gain a perspective from which to consider this dilemma, let’s think of life as a game being played by every creature that inhabits this planet. To win, in this “game of life,” each individual must behave in ways that optimize its species’ chances for success. Failure is behavior that does not serve the species. If failure is widespread, the species will eventually lose out in life’s game. But, with nearly nine million species on earth, there are many winners.

Seeking Order in Illusions

Think of the complex of rules required to govern such a game, rules that stipulate the moment-to-moment activities of trillions of individuals, comprising millions of species, in such a way that the vast majority are winners. None of these trillions know they are part of a game, yet remarkably—as a product of evolution, and despite the complexity—every creature knows everything it needs to know, to win. It knows by its feelings. That is, to win in the game of life all any being has to know is how it feels. Emotions are the source, the impetus and inspiration of all behaviors required for each individual to contribute to its species’ success. Whenever a being figures out what it needs to do to satisfy its most dominant feeling—yes, animals can think—and succeeds at doing so, life rewards it with spiritual fulfillment. The satisfaction of finding resolution to feelings of the moment informs all living beings that they are winning life’s game. Life’s sublime gift is that winning is not a one-time event, but occurs again and again, every time an individual finds resolution to its everchanging feelings.

What are they, and where do they come from—these emotions that are so essential to the existence of life? They are manifestations of life that express its survival wisdom. They began evolving with the first stirrings of life on earth. Each species possesses a unique set of emotions, just as it has a unique set of physical features. Physical features give individuals the ability to react to their circumstances. Emotions tell them how to react. Just as evolution selects successful physical characteristics over less-successful ones, emotions that inspire actions that contribute to the species’ success, are the ones most likely to be passed to future generations. The genes of a mother who takes pleasure in nurturing her young, for example, are far more likely to survive, along with her offspring, than the genes of a mother who finds no satisfaction in caring for her young. This example illustrates how crucial emotions are to a species’ success, so vital that emotional characteristics define a species every bit as much as physical ones do. We use physical characteristics to describe a species, not because emotions are less important, rather because they can’t be seen.

Emotions govern all life on earth, by inspiring creatures to seek pleasure and avoid pain. To avoid the pain of hunger, individuals seek the pleasure of eating. To avoid the pain of chill, they seek the pleasure of warmth. And the members of social species avoid the pain of loneliness by seeking the pleasure of familiar associations. In these ways, feelings not only inspire activities that are essential to each being’s survival, they also instill values in every individual that go far beyond the bare necessity of survival. For example, in social species, love exemplifies a value that is essential to forming and maintaining the relationships needed for the species to flourish. But love is not required for the survival of any individual. We can all manage without love. Indeed, modern humans survive largely without it, but it’s not a very spiritually fulfilling way to live.

Excerpt from Take Us Home, Girls!

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