Leaving It All On the Table

Leaving It All On the Table

A couple of years ago someone taught me how to play poker. To be fair, he might say he tried to teach me how to play. I’d always wanted to learn, but no one had ever been around to teach me before, and I’m not the sort to just learn it on my own or in only one sitting.

I’m also not the sort to learn the mathematical way — counting the cards and calculating the odds. I’m an intuitive player. I learn the lay of the land, and until I do, I may blunder around a bit, venturing off in different directions and trying to sort out what goes where and who and when. But then one day, it all just clicks, and as one life-long Chicagoan I know says about navigating the territory, I can just “feel where the Lake is.”

I’m not easy to beat once that happens.

At least, that’s how games have always worked for me before. Poker is different. Because poker is life — or maybe life is poker.

The lessons went well, as lessons usually do when you’re invested in learning. And I was winning some. But there was a disconnect. He wasn’t just trying to teach me how to play poker, he was also trying to teach me why to play poker, and he wanted me to play to win. I was losing what I was winning, and he thought it was because he hadn’t taught me when to walk away.

The problem was, we didn’t define winning the same way. And what winning looks like for you? Well, that changes everything about how you play the game.

It’s not always about what you take home. Sometimes it’s about what you leave on the table.

Sometimes it’s about showing your cards instead of hiding them.

Sometimes it’s all about staying in the game, not because you don’t think you can lose — you can lose everything. But because that one game is worth everything.

Sometimes winning means you just keep playing as long as you can.

I don’t know if I’ll ever play poker again. Really play. I mess around online sometimes with real people but pretend cards and pretend money. I try to learn playing there the way he taught me — or tried. But it’s not the same. It’s just a game, and he taught me more than he knew, even if I didn’t quite learn exactly what he wanted me to.

The real game is about something else entirely. It’s about knowing who you are and what you want and what it’s all worth to you. I put it all on the table and I walked away with the game of a lifetime. And I don’t know that I ever want to play the real thing any other way.

Getting Through

Getting Through

Life is so hard.

I have friends facing so much right now. Friends with cancer diagnoses. Friends facing seemingly unending obstacles in their life’s work. Friends reading words of condemnation and rejection from former mentors and colleagues. Friends struggling with depression and despair. Friends wading through flood waters of many kinds, including the literal.

Friends facing so much that is discouraging, demeaning, and overwhelming.

All my life I’ve tried to fix problems. My brain sees puzzles everywhere and looks for solutions instinctively. Sometimes that’s helpful, but I’ve slowly (too slowly) learned that the things that really matter aren’t puzzles to solve or problems to fix. They are just life. Messy, painful, sometimes beautiful life.

And life is not meant to be fixed or solved. Life is meant to be lived.

I’m beginning to learn.

I used to feel so helpless and useless in the face of pain and problems I could do nothing to resolve. But I’m beginning to understand that even when I can’t fix a thing, I’m not helpless. I still have agency. There’s still something I can do.

I can choose life.

I can choose to sit with pain and confusion and still love in the midst of it. I can name what is wrong and refuse to redefine it as okay. I can have faith for and in friends. I can believe there’s always something more, that nothing has to go the worst way it could. That love is never wasted.

Don’t get me wrong, I still wish I had a magic wand to make everything better. And in its absence, I will still do what I can to heal the wounds of this world and intervene in the violence that creates them. But whatever else I can (or can’t) do, I can be present. Present to this world in all its chaotic pain and beauty. Present to my friends and neighbors as they wrestle with what life has presented them with. Present to each moment I am given.

And one moment at a time, we will get through.

Hope Comes

Hope Comes

Hope comes last.

Do you have any idea how much that bothers me?

In Romans 5, Paul says that “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance produces character; and character, hope.”

Sometimes I don’t know what kind of world he lived in to say such a thing. Not the part in the middle – “perseverance produces character.” That can make sense. Practice and exercise, sticking with it – I see that producing character in myself and others.

But “suffering produces perseverance”? No. It doesn’t. Not on its own, at least. Unrelieved suffering without hope produced despair. Then numbness. Deadening. Unrelieved suffering produces the realization that one can actually get through the unendurable, but not intact.

I’ve lived with enough suffering myself, and alongside the suffering of others, not to spiritualize it. Abusive relationships, abusive systems. Suffering kills.

Persistent suffering teaches a person that it won’t matter what you do. It kills agency. You feel like a placeholder in the world, but something knows you’re meant for more than that.

Suffering produces silence.

Without hope.

Hope can change everything.

Hope is a gift we can give each other, but we have to receive it, or give it to ourselves, first.

Hope says, this can change. I – we – can do something different.

Hope says, this world can change. We can grow and learn, and it can be filled with beauty, love, and peace. We can choose that.

Hope says, I can change. My life can change. But I have to choose to change things.

In so many ways, I was taught to wait for things to change. To “wait on the Lord” – for direction, for a date, for a calling, for life. I remember the day, Easter Sunday in the parking lot after church, when I first said it (to myself as much as to my friend). “If I want my life to be different, nothing is very likely to change unless I make some changes.”

That was the day I began to find my agency. When I began to go out to find direction, a date, a calling, a life. And it turns out, they are there for the finding (though not without that perseverance).

Suffering will happen – the result of wrongs done both intentionally and accidentally, by both ourselves and others. The result of death, that final enemy. The result of life that just is, changing seasons and moving ever onward with little regard for our three-score-and-ten.

But we have today – really that’s all we have. And we can chose beauty and love and generosity today, even if we know that choice will bring suffering tomorrow.

That’s the hope – that there is always beauty and love and generosity to be chosen.

Paul’s equation only works as a cycle. It only works when, in the face of suffering, we can share hope with each other. When we can choose together beauty and love with generosity in the middle of suffering. When we can fight alongside each other for the agency to right the injustices that so often trap us in suffering.

Then suffering can produce perseverance, and perseverance can produce character, and character can produce even more hope. Enough to infect the world.