Alan Watts asks whether playing the game of life is worth the effort required. The answer is, as always, simple: if you’re going to play the game, commit to it, play it well, and trust yourself to play it well.

It’s very funny to come to California—you know, when you’ve lived elsewhere and it’s been an ideal—and suddenly you wake up and you realize you’re there! You know? You’re on vacation, you’ve got there, and everybody else envies you. And so we have to learn how to be there—or rather, to be here. Of course, it is always possible to construe the thing in another way and to say, “Yes, it may be a game, but it’s a ghastly game; it’s a grim game.” It’s like a child who’s caught a fly alive and is picking the wings off it. The universe is that sort of scheme. It’s a trap. It’s a thing that gives you hope, is always dangling possibilities in front of you to keep you going, but then it grinds you up. And then it revives you a little, like a master torturer keeping a person alive in order to experience pain. There is a kind of inverted mystical experience that people occasionally have where they see the whole universe as this sort of trap, and everything looks crummy. People look as if they’re made of plastic, and aren’t really people but only make-believe people. They’re mechanisms which are going “Yakety yak” and pretending that they are really there and alive. And everything looks as if it were made of patent leather or enameled tin, and just a nasty, dead scene. That’s the inverted mystical experience. And one might ask, “Well, you could take that view, too.” And here you come to what Albert Camus said: “The fundamentally important philosophical question is whether or not to commit suicide.”


Now, this is the real question: Is the game worth the candle? If you think “No,” then you’d better commit suicide. That’s the logical thing to do. If—on the other hand—you’re not sure, then you’d better make up your mind. Because if you’re going to go on with the game of life and not be sure as to whether it’s really worth going on, you’ll make a mess of it. That’s quite certain. It’s like doing something evil, like telling a lie. If you’re going to tell a lie at all, you have to make it stick, and so, make it good. Don’t wobble when you lie, because someone will find you out and it’ll all fall apart, and it’ll be worse than if you never did it. So if you make up your mind that you’re going to do something evil, you have to have—like a golf swing—follow-through. And so, in the same way, with going on living at all: if you’re going to gamble, gamble! And so, either suicide or gamble seem to me to be the great alternatives of this life.


And what will the gamble be? The gamble—or the gaming—has to rest on the assumption that this game is superb. No other assumption will work. If I may put it in another way: the game is to be trusted. The universe—you, yourself—it is fundamentally to be trusted, and this is the act of faith which underlies all gambling. Because if you don’t make that assumption as absolutely basic, the game will not work. Now, this is where one must consider game theory in relation to ethics. What are the characteristics of a workable game? A viable game, as biologists would call it; a game that is worth the candle?


First of all, the game must involve an optimal combination of skill and chance. Or, we might say order and randomness. Where a game is pure chance, it loses interest. Let’s just think of tossing coins: the chances are 50-50, always, that it will be either heads or tails. And this becomes very boring. One wants to cheat a little to liven it up, and so introduce a bit of skill. But where a game depends on pure skill, and especially a very complex kind of skill, it becomes too tiresome. So you could put at opposite ends of a spectrum of games, say, tossing coins or tic-tac-toe—or something very simple which is mostly chance (because tic-tac-toe, when you know how to play it, reduces itself to that you either win or draw if you get the first move)—at the other end of the scale, a highly complex game like… well, I’ve suggested three-dimensional chess, but just imagine three-dimensional go, where you would play on eight boards to give yourself a cube to play in, or whatever number of boards—go would be more than that, wouldn’t it? But you would be in such a complex thing that you’d just lose track of it. Eventually, the game would just become totally confused for most people. So we get optimal games in the middle—like bridge, or poker, or checkers, or chess—where there is this interplay of skill and chance. So we look for this optimal point where there is a risk—there must be a risk, there must be chance, it mustn’t all be predetermined—because any game where the result is known is not worth playing. That’s to say, when, in chess, the players suddenly realize that white is going to mate in five moves, they abandon the game and say, “Let’s begin again.” And so in life. That’s why a lot of people don’t like going to fortune tellers. They don’t want to know the future. If I know exactly what’s going to happen to me, in a very real sense I’ve had it. So let’s finish it up and begin again; turn in the check. You see, the whole fun of the situation of a game is that you don’t know the outcome, and that’s why it’s worth playing. This is one characteristic of a viable game: a certain combination of skill and chance.


Now, there’s another, which is of a much more ethical type, and that is—I will call it—trusting the game. Because if you don’t do this—in other words, if you won’t gamble—you won’t play. And here is the point of the necessity of the gamble that corresponds a little bit to the necessity of having chance as well as skill in any game that really works. But the necessity of gambling is very much overlooked, I think, in our contemporary culture because this is a culture where we are trying, as much as possible, to take the risk out of things. And when the risk is taken out of human relationships they become impossible. We have, I think—in the United States—a very naïve faith in law and in law enforcement. We’re always saying, “There ought to be a law against it,” as if law could solve things. And we don’t realize the extent to which law makes life increasingly more difficult. Because law is simply a process of trying to define what may be done and what may not be done. But the moment you start talking, the definitions become increasingly complicated. And lawyers love this; they live on it. So, it’s always an interminable discussion of “What did they mean when they said that? What was the intent of this law?” And as laws multiply with the avowed object of protecting us from each other, they do not so much succeed in protecting us as they do in making it impossible for us to act. And so, the ultimate police state is, of course, the safe state: the security state where everybody is checked. And you see what this is? Mechanically speaking, it’s a system of very elaborate self-consciousness.


See, when you get self-conscious and you watch everything you do because you’re anxious about making a mistake, you find: in that you’re all tied up and you can’t act. So, in exactly the same way, a community of people which is always watching itself through its agents, so that—you know, in a Nazi state there are not only the ordinary policemen on the beat, but there’s a block captain for every area, and there’s some kind of a sneak or traitor who’s going to inform the authorities… everywhere, you see; hidden—so this community is watching itself all the time because it’s a community that doesn’t trust itself. And a community which constantly watches itself is like a person who’s always watching himself and holding a club over his head to go CLUNK the minute he might be in danger of doing something wrong. And so this person is like this: If I say, “Now, my right hand is my main active hand, but I don’t know whether I can trust it. I don’t know what it’s going to do. So I’ve got to keep control on it with my left hand.” See? So, always, the left hand is controlling the right hand. Whatever—if I want to pick something up, the left hand will have to push the right hand down, and squeeze the fingers together, and then lift it up so that it’ll come up. See? I’ve lost a hand by doing that. And so, in exactly the same way, when any community of people is founded on mutual mistrust, it sort of loses half of itself, it becomes clutched up, it becomes paralyzed and unable to move.


So, the basis of any community—and thus the basis of any game—is the act of faith that I will gamble; I will bet my life on this scene. And, you see, that also is fundamentally not only the attitude of faith, but it’s the attitude of love. Love is self-giving. When you love someone—say, you fall in love with a member of your opposite sex, or whatever—and you got mixed up with someone now. You’ve really committed yourself to heaven only knows what! Because love is a letting go of direct control. And you might say—going back again to the Christian images of God—that God creates the world by constantly disappearing, giving himself away. This—the Hindu would agree with this, too: that insofar as everyone here is God in disguise, but doesn’t know it—this is because you, as God, are constantly giving yourself away to you and feeling lost. You know? How did I get mixed up in this world? Well, unbeknownst to myself I made a gamble on being this person. And so this giving of one’s self away is what’s called the divine love.


So then, in playing the game, if you don’t make the assumption that I can let go of myself in the act of faith and in the act of love, you may just as well commit suicide right now—because you can’t play it on any other basis than that. Any attempt to do so will merely make the whole thing clutch up and become insupportable, and will—in any case—be suicide. See, when we get the ultimate weapon with which we know we can be safe because nobody else has it, just because we wanted to get that ultimate safety and get that ultimate weapon to defeat our enemies, it will be suicide. Because life really is not the avoidance of death. Death is the avoidance of death. The constant terror of death, the constant putting it off, the constant vigilance that one will not die—that is death! What we call life is, fundamentally, willingness to die. Constant jumping of being into not-being. So long as you do that, it goes on. So: so long as you shake the dice and you don’t know how they’re going to come out and flip, the game goes on, you see? So long as you take a chance.

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