The Hand You Were Dealt
Each of us is challenged by our culture’s tradition as well as by more primitive instincts to negotiate reality successfully. If we use a metaphor and compare this predicament of life to a game of chance, we might say that from the great cosmic deck of all the cards available, each of us was dealt a hand of cards. These cards that are to be our resources and burdens have been dealt in the main by the time we reach maturity. They have become facts of life.
Some of the cards — our genetic heritage — were dealt round by birth. Our access to science and technology may allow for some changes (plastic surgery or organ transplants, for example) in how the genetic heritage appears and works. By and large, however, those cards remain the same throughout our lives. As you know, this is usually called the “nature” part of our heritage.
Some of the cards are dealt after we are born. These cards are referred to as the “nurture” or conditional and circumstantial part of our heritage.
In short, not all possibilities are available to every single person born. Some things, to some people come easily, some things do not. But “easy” or “challenging” is something to factor in — not a sign from nature about choices you must make. Should we abandon our arduous pursuit of a goal that comes more easily to others? Not necessarily. However, of course, we’ll want to be realistic about allowing for the proper amount of effort that must be exerted.
So, even though we were dealt, by nature and by nurture, by accident and by design, a hand of cards, we don’t necessarily have to stand “pat.” We can acquire new cards and, perhaps, there are some we can discard.
Of course, even when we are playing with our, for now, current hand, there are other factors coming into play that may affect whether we win or lose. By being an astute player, we can be successful with less than desirable cards. After all, continuing with our metaphor (that life deals us a hand from the great cosmic deck of all available cards) life is a game of chance and skill. We’ve all heard the metaphoric possibilities. In life, as in poker, we can up the ante, raise the stakes, beat the odds, bluff. [In poker, we can sometimes demand a new deal. Unfortunately, this is not true in life!]
But in life, the stakes, odds, conditions, opportunities and players do change. We can seek teaching that will leverage our holdings, i.e., help us to play better. We can make plans and practice our strategies for accomplishment. We can reassess how our hand of cards will play against the competitors. We can choose fields of contention or games wherein we are likely to be a better competitor.
Yes, it is nice, very nice, to have good cards, but there are many consummate players of relatively poorer ones. So, it is critical that we assess our hand.
Now, how do we know if our assessment is objective, accurate? How do we know if we are overstating our honors? Do we look at our resume, our track record, at what our neighbors say about us, at the size of our mortgage?
No. The questions listed below are focused on helping us to “get real” about cards we only wished or imagined we had, to figure out how to acquire cards to leverage our holdings, or how to use a better understanding of how the game is played to revalue our cards. They come from a “pragmatic” perspective and I believe they are more useful in making an assessment.
- As compared to your vision for yourself in the marketplace, your concern for a functional stake in productive society, assess your cards. Assess your ability to exchange equivalent value. Do you stand tall, pull your weight and hold yourself responsible for your behavior and accountable for the consequences? How desirable is your hand? How well do you play it?
- As compared to your vision for yourself regarding love, intimacy, friendship, companionship, compatibility and belonging, assess your cards. Do you authenticate meaning by: granting attentiveness, listening and respect; revealing emotional attachment; and calling the heart and mind to care and concern in situations where chemicals no longer provide the magic? How well do you play your hand?
- As compared to your vision for yourself regarding contributing to others, assess your cards. Are you skilled at reconciliation, can you forgive and forget, can you bring forth love and empathetic connection, are you sensitive to the suffering of those less able than yourself, does your way of being help to comfort or raise the spirits of those to whom you are connected? How desirable is your hand? How well do you play it?
- As compared to your vision for yourself regarding authenticity, integrity and leadership do you take your words and your conversations seriously? Or are they too often contentious, or cheap, or timid? Do you listen to what you say and monitor it for relevance, tenor, sincerity and accuracy? Do you press yourself to think and speak honestly? Do you avoid manipulating others? Do you avoid self-deception? Do you say what you mean and mean what you say? How desirable is your hand? How well do you play it?
And if we really desire to individuate our humanity and to invest in a life and a mind of our own design, we must take the measure of our humanity by assessing how well, how sensitively, we have used our capacity for understanding; how well, how conscientiously, we have contemplated the authority and meaning to which we defer; and how well, how sensitively, we have ordered our priorities.
How we play our cards, that is, our choices, decisions and actions are up to us and us alone.
But how well we play our cards, enables us to pursue and realize our goals and ambitions with a more measured and humane assessment of what constitutes a successful life. The reward for such effort? Authority. Uncommon confidence. An experience of gratitude and belonging. The kind of substance that shows up as resilience. And a principled way of being that contributes to the safe space in which others may flourish, too.
I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for over 30 years. These classes offer a unique and powerful governing philosophy for practical living. They stand firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity to a life of our own design. More information is available on my website: autonomyandlife.com.
This article is an edited and revised version from a draft of my book “How To Think About Autonomy and Life.”