One of the games described by Eric Berne in his 1964 bestseller, Games People Play, is more popular than ever. At the water cooler, in the supermarket, at the barbershop, in a bar, around the dinner table – everyone plays “Ain’t it awful?” The newspapers, the magazines, the talking heads on TV, and the animated radio journalists provide us each day with more issues to complain about.
You are familiar with most of the issues: acts of terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, the bad trade your home town sports team just made, the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, the suspected fraud in the investment banking business, the failing underfunded educational system, the exorbitant cost of health care, the questionable choices for the Supreme Court, the unworkable state ballot propositions, etc., etc. Ad infinitum.
What has made this simple game so popular today in my humble estimation is the new emphasis on “entitlements.” Children and adults were never more entitled to their own opinions than now. Ignore this cheerful analysis that you are reading if you are fed up with amateur opinions posted on the Internet, quoted in the newspapers, and voiced by your friends.
Opinions don’t matter much, but the inalienable right to express them is sacrosanct in America. Without adequate experience, education, or background, we venture forth with our evaluations, borrowed, reasoned, or just fabricated on the spot without the least consideration for the people involved. They may have a serious problem with some unseen obstacles that prevent them from doing what seems rational to us. Nevertheless, I agree with you, could things get worse?
What is most aggravating to me is that you can’t fix anything that you can’t touch. This invaluable lesson I learned working on jobs that expected me “to make things happen.”
The first step of problem solving I was taught in the university was to gather the facts. This is not easy to do for those problems outside of our own personal involvement. And even then, at the workplace there are things we aren’t privy to because we don’t have “a need to know.” Leaders, bosses, and authorities prevent the truth from circulating because it might be negative to their careers. Everyone knows that the powerful among us like to stonewall.
What people are outraged about most often are unsolved problems that seem to them simple to remedy. Off the shelf solutions abound for problems that don’t exist, and most thorny problems that frustrate us can’t be fixed easily. Laws are passed, procedures are adopted, and expensive bureaucracies are established to deal with specific conditions or situations.
But situations change rapidly and conditions rarely remain constant. Laws without sunset clauses are not easy to amend, and authorities are too busy or too reluctant to adapt ad hoc procedures to new challenges. The regulators, the auditors, and the inspectors go by the law. That’s what they are paid to do.
Fortunately, playing the game Ain’t it Awful permits many grousers to experience some psychological relief by complaining about something they don’t have to remedy. (Or they aren’t responsible for taking urgent action which they may regret later.) But that doesn’t completely resolve our pent-up frustration. Society is plagued by disruptive labor stoppages, random harm to people and property, Ponzi schemers, and terrorist activities.
The more people we add to the population of this planet, the more disgruntled individuals we will have living among us. These unhappy campers feel that they are entitled to a better life than the one they have and that they are discriminated against when they are ignored or mistreated by the political-economic establishment.
Mention almost anything in a small group of people about what a business, a school, or a government is doing, and someone is bound to say, “What’s going on is awful! It ought to be changed, it must be improved, or it has to be fixed!” And the sooner the better, of course!
When you get into the details there is no money to spend, no consensus about what to do, and no desire by those who actually could do something to waste their energy in negotiating a workable solution. If all our complains were dollars tossed into a pot and added up, there would be plenty of money to make the necessary changes and improvements.
However, things aren’t all that bad when they are compared to what we had in this country at the beginning of the last century. I’m sorry; life today is what it is. Our negative reactions to unwelcome surprises and unexpected inconveniences indicate that we are spoiled and pampered.
We are not automatically entitled to a smooth ride, a sickness-free, fun-filled, inexpensive, lifetime vacation. Life is made up of labor-intensive obligations, unforeseen accidents, and many insecure moments. Risks must be borne, challenges met, and threats to our health defied. Credit must be earned, savings accumulated through sacrifice, and success strived for. Says who?
Not the advertisers who will sell you anything. Not the political candidates who will promise you better government, more entitlements, and tax cuts. Not the personnel representative who guarantees that the company you plan to join has your interest in mind. Not the church leader who says eternal salvation is yours if you come to church every Sunday and contribute something tax deductible to help the church and the needy.
Not even your parents or your teachers who want the best for you as long as you cooperate with them and stay out of trouble. People will tell you anything they think you want to hear, but only experience will prove to you the value of what I have written above.
Sure there are all kinds of opportunities to help others deal with their misfortunes, to alter the unfair distribution of income, to stop doing all the things that cause global warming (except putting your car on blocks), and to vote for honest candidates of either dominant party and the sound propositions which will be approved or disapproved by the courts after the vote is counted.
But the most important thing you can do is not let yourself become frustrated and aggravated by the futility of sitting on your hands and playing Ain’t it Awful! The complex system that you are confronted with in life is what it is. The procedures to change anything are convoluted of course and drawn out in order that doing the wrong thing can be avoided.
Changes don’t necessarily bring improvements. Frequently, they subtract an advantage to someone and give it to someone else like tax reforms. The total amount of taxes collected after the tax code is revised must generate the same amount of revenue if not more. And the services rendered must be better than before which rarely happens.
Life is tough. Teachers and bosses are demanding. Nature is oblivious to the trouble she causes. There is seldom enough money to buy what you want. Friends can abandon us in times of trouble. And God rarely pays attention to our earnest solicitations.
Fear can render us immobile. The threat of war and mayhem can intimidate us. And the scourge of some deadly plague worse that AIDS is going to turn up any day in the hands of our enemies.
However, modern life is not “awful,” it’s “awesome!” The popular Golden Rule still guides us: “Do others, as they would do you.” Man’s inhumanity to man never discriminated in favor of women. The forms it takes today are just more devious, sophisticated, and outrageous.
Fun and games are electrified, and everyone is invited to play the new Internet game. The World Wide Web enables people from all over the planet to shake their heads sadly and play our favorite game: “Is that America? Is that democracy? Is that fair? Is that what the future has in store for us? Ain’t it awful?!”
“NO!” I say emphatically, “It’s not!” It’s just reality. It’s what’s happening. It’s a three ring circus complete with a human freak show and a menagerie of savages. It’s an updated version of the original hunt and gathers routine where the most capable hunters survive and the least capable beg for mercy and for scraps to eat and bones to gnaw. And it’s the only game in town! Get a beer and a babe, and check it out.
The status quo may be intolerable and “totally unacceptable,” to quote a former CEO. According to the vocal majority, our political leaders are incompetent, irresponsible, and corrupt. Our laws are unjust, unfair, and unenforceable. Our judicial system is unevenly administered, our juries are biased, and some of our judges are too pro-active. Our school systems are failing, our federal debt is unmanageable, and our health care delivery system is broken. What does all that say about our industrious people? “I see the vigorous, but where are the virtuous?” you might wonder.
They’re all over America constantly playing the game Ain’t it Awful. They suffer from a mysterious mental malady, the symptoms of which are a lack of objectivity, a high fever for frivolity, an uncontrollable rage against anyone who disagrees with them, a sometimes violent disrespect for authority figures, and a disgusting display of self-indulgence. Their unbridled exhibition of primitive human nature is just this side of professionally condemned madness. As Plato asked originally, can you have a virtuous Republic without virtuous citizens? I doubt it.
Remember, however, life is a zero-sum game. Whenever you change the rules of the game in an effort to improve anything, some players are favored, some players suffer, some players are taxed, some players win, and some players lose. Sometimes innocent players die.
Nevertheless, the awesome thing about the game of life is that when it’s finally over, both winners and losers are totally free from all the absurd ground rules and annoying inconveniences. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?