In my sixth grade science class, we were more interested in predicting our futures than in getting 100% on our next test. On a sheet of loose-leaf paper, we would determine various important aspects of our future life, such as: husband, house, number of children, job, income, and car. You know, all the important stuff. Then we would place our pencil on the paper and begin to draw a spiral. After someone yelled stop, the game of MASH would begin. Whatever the number of spirals drawn, that would determine your fate.
4 lines? Okay, that equals…married to Jimmy (sigh), and we live in a house. He is a lawyer and makes $100, 000 a year. We drive a Lexus SUV and have five kids. Perfect. Our life will be just perfect. And to a 12 year old, that pretty much sums it up. It also sounds pretty good to just about every one else on planet Earth too, don’t you think? I mean, who would pass up comfort, luxury, and security for the alternatives? You are better off trusting your fate to a game of MASH.
LIFE AS WE KNOW IT
When we get married, we all enter the game with a list of our own categories we hope to cross off. Our husband might be enrolled in school in order to follow the path to his dream job. We might be enrolled in school too, or we might already be ensconced in a career ourselves. Or the goal of beginning a family might be fore front in our mind. The future is bright, and how could it not be? It has yet to be tarnished by the trials of life.
FAMILY GAME NIGHT
For most of us, we might be lucky to skate along, holding the hand of our partner, for quite some time before the rules of the game seem to change before our eyes. If we are lucky, the rules might never change. But as a member of a family with 13 kids, all of whom are married, I can tell you, from observation, that rules change. And usually when you least expect it.
In my immediate family of 2 parents and 13 kids, I have witnessed what it is like to blend two families. I have a step family. We have been a family for 26 years. The rules change pretty quick when you join together two living things. I watched my parents time and again put on their game face and readjust their winning strategy even when calling it quits would have been easier. They are playing their game to win.
As siblings have gone off to play games of their own, our family has grown from 13 brothers and sisters to 26 adults with 40 kids between us and 1 on the way. Believe me, there is plenty of room for error.
Our blended family has witnessed loss of jobs, transatlantic moves, the ups and downs of starting small businesses, the inability to have children, the blessing of adoption, and countless other scenarios that come into our lives unscripted, changing the game for everyone; things we wouldn’t have placed into our own winning hand of cards.
My own little family unit has gone through just such an experience. An experience that I would never have chosen in sixth grade as a desirable option for the game of MASH–loss of job. Just like any young man embarking on his career, my husband was on an upward trajectory. I felt like I had indeed won the game of MASH—nice house, handsome husband, great career, 3.5 kids, and a fast car.
But then the rules changed.
One phone call and we were back to square one, although it felt like hitting that Monopoly card that sends you directly to jail. Suddenly I felt like we were the only ones who had lost. Every other family around us was still playing by their rules and succeeding rather well. What had we done wrong with our own game?
For a while, I was very angry at the rules. Why did they have to change? Then I became angry at my husband. Why hadn’t he played the game more efficiently? Why hadn’t he more closely studied the rules? And then I rounded on myself. Had I done something wrong? Was I the one who pulled the ‘go to jail’ card for our team? I mean, sheesh, we were playing to win and following all the rules, so somebody somewhere had to have made a mistake!
EVERYONE PLAYS THE GAME
During this level of the game of life, my husband began attending an LDS Employment Services workshop for those who were seeking jobs. There he met others who were on the same level. Some had more experience and education, others had a similar background, and still some who were just starting out.
This taught me that the rules can change for anyone. It doesn’t matter how well you have equipped yourself with education, experience, or material goods.
THE. RULES. CAN. CHANGE. FOR. ANYONE.
So, suddenly I began to wonder if perhaps the game I thought I was playing was really not the actual game at all.
THE REAL GAME
What do I mean by that? Simply this.
Most of the world thinks that the end goal of each family game is an accumulation of material things and experiences. And it is really easy to focus on this as the end goal, just like that old game I used to play in grade six. Because, really, who is going to fill a list of desirable goals with:
- handsome husband,
However, after I began to readjust the focus of my game strategy, I began to take note of the things that really stood out to me as desirable.
- My husband was rarely depressed. And if he was, he hid it well.
- He took every opportunity to serve others, and I mean every inconvenient opportunity that came his way (like picking up a family who had ruined their car by going into a ditch and hitting a pole and sitting with them for an hour on the side of the road, at night in the rain, until a tow truck pulled up, and then helping the tow truck guy push the car out of the ditch).
- He kept himself occupied by creating and organizing a garden to provide food for our family.
- He served in his church calling, often at inconvenient times.
- He spent time with his kids
- He was, and is, always there for the neighbors
- He attended the temple regularly
- He fasted
- He prayed
And on and on it goes, all while spending hours searching for jobs, networking with others, and interviewing time and again.
As time went by, my husband showed me that the end goal of our game was not to amass worldly goods or experiences, although that would have been nice, it was to remain valiant and faithful and kind even in the direst circumstances. Suddenly, I was really grateful that I had chosen such a worthy teammate. I guess he had really studied the rules well and it was I who had failed to do so.
One day my husband was stuck in a long line of traffic inching it’s way down the I-45 in Houston, Texas. As he came to the cause of the stalled traffic, he noticed a broken down truck halfway on and halfway off the road. Realizing that the only way to solve the situation was to get out an help, he did just that.
Parking his car on the shoulder, he helped an elderly man push his truck down a ramp and into a parking lot. In Spanish, the man thanked my husband and was surprised to hear kind words repeated to him in his native tongue.
“What is your name?” My husband asked the man.
“Jesus,” he said with a little laugh.
“Ah, well, this is indeed a gift from God,” my husband replied with his twinkling smile, gesturing to Heaven. “My name is Alma!”
In Spanish, Alma means “soul”.
The man began to cry, pointing at Alma and then up to the sky. And then he threw his arms around Alma and hugged him tight.
When Alma had this experience, he was still looking for a job. There were a million things on his mind, and a million things he had to get done now-now-NOW! But that didn’t stop him from pausing the game and taking time out to help another player.
As I listened to him share this story, I began to wonder if perhaps Alma has been playing a different, more eternal game all along. Maybe I was still stuck on sixth grade games that children play when they can’t imagine a different, more better way.
It would be nice to play a game with the same rules as everyone else. We would know what to expect and when to expect it. We would know how to face all the obstacles. And we would probably all win. But that wouldn’t really be playing, right? That would be more like just existing. Every family, every person, struggles with rule changes that we cannot see or understand. No one is playing by the same rules. It is these changes that create a custom made game of life that refines us and equips us with more experience than we could have imagined on our own. They make us a better player for the game, the real game of life. The one in which we beat the odds by changing all the rules.
Jessica Clark is a wife, mom, writer, runner, knitter, and proud Canadian. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in Anthropology, and has been a student of people and cultures ever since. Right now she is busy studying the behavior and cultures of the people of Texas.