Imagine you learned to play checkers at a very early age, and it’s the only game you play. You know all the rules, follow them to a T and play it confidently and well. At some point in your life, you meet a partner who has played only chess all his life. He knows all the rules, follows them to a T and plays it confidently and well.
One day you take out your board and say let’s play!
You’re both familiar with the game board itself, but each have your own separate pieces and own set of rules for playing.
For awhile you sort of make up your own game together, not really caring that the checker and chess pieces are different and move in different ways. You’re having tons of fun playing together in whatever form the game takes each time you play.
At some point, your mother comes over and sees you playing your game. She takes you to the side and says, “What are you doing? That’s not how to play checkers. What’s up with all those weird pieces, and why is he moving them around the board that way?”
You are taken aback, as it never occurred to you that there was something wrong in the way you were playing. You tell your mother you’re just having fun, it’s no big deal, and to chill out. She shakes her head in disgust, gives a disapproving look and mumbles something like “That’s not how our family plays.”
You try to put it out of your mind, but what she said keeps coming back to you. You think about how good you always were at checkers, and surely everyone who’s anyone should know how to play it properly.
You start questioning why your partner doesn’t get it.
Why does he insist on using those weird pieces and moving them around in such strange ways?
Now that you think of it, it really doesn’t make any sense! Checkers is checkers and has a specific set of rules. Still, you push those thoughts away. The game you’ve been playing, while not quite checkers, uses the same board and you both have a great time playing it.
At some point, your friends come over for a visit and also notice the different game you and your partner have been playing. They don’t say anything to you, but when they leave they burst out laughing.
“That’s some strange way of playing checkers!” They say to each other. “Can you believe she lets him use those weird pieces and move them in such strange ways? There’s a freakin’ horse on the board for goodness sakes! Nobody who’s anybody plays checkers with a horse!” they chuckle. “What happened to her? Doesn’t she have any self respect? Is she going to allow him to walk all over her checker pieces with his fancy king and queen (not to mention that weird castle thingee) all her life? What about her future? And (God forbid) what if they have kids?”
Eventually, your friends’ chatter gets back to you and you feel sad. You don’t like it when your friends disapprove of you and your partner.
Soon, between your mother (who calls every day to get a status update about your game), and your friends’ gossiping, you can’t help but spend a lot of time thinking about the situation. In fact, you can’t get it off your mind.
You become obsessed with it and start second guessing all the fun you’ve been having with your partner.
You decide to go to a therapist and try to sort out the situation. “It’s really not his fault,” she tells you. “Obviously his mother never taught him how to play checkers properly. However, if he loved you, he’d try harder. You should sit him down and tell him that the way he plays is simply unacceptable. There are certain rules to the game, which need to be followed.”
Feeling empowered by this pep talk, you go home and tell your partner that his pieces are wrong, the way he moves them is even more wrong and you’re not going to take it anymore. “I deserve better than this,” you say with a disapproving glare.
Your partner looks at you with a puzzled expression.
“Huh? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
This makes you even more mad. “How can you look me squarely in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?” you scream.
Confused, and not wanting to escalate matters, your partner goes somewhere else for awhile. Completely baffled, he thinks, “I’ve got all the right pieces and am making all the right moves, just as I was taught and have always done. I am proud of the way I play the game. What the hell is she on about?”
The next time you’re together, your partner is determined to keep the peace. He just wants to have fun and doesn’t particularly like getting yelled at, especially when he’s playing his game flawlessly. So he decides he’ll try playing it with the checker pieces instead of the chess ones that he’s used to.
You are elated that he’s finally making an effort to “be good.”
He feels very much out of his element trying to play chess using checker pieces, but he really wants to please you. Scared of getting it wrong, he follows the rules he knows so well, as carefully as he can.
You cannot believe what you see.
“REALLY? REALLY? You’re gonna keep on playing this way despite how I feel about it? So this is how it’s going to be forever?” you yell.
Exasperated, he flips over the game board, and the pieces fly everywhere. “I’’M OUTTA HERE!”
And with that, he leaves and never returns.
And you live sadly ever after.
But wait! It doesn’t have to end that way.
Let’s look at an alternative ending:
After your partner storms out, you find yourself with a head-full of thoughts, and a variety of emotions. “Why is HE mad at ME?” You wonder. “He’s the one acting like an ass. I don’t ask for very much, but this game is important to me. Why won’t he play it by the rules? Everyone else in the world seems to be able to play it correctly. Everyone but him.”
Then suddenly you remember those times when you saw him playing the game with his friends and family. They used the same pieces and made the same moves that he does. At the time, you didn’t give it much thought, but suddenly you find it curious. “Come to think of it, everyone doesn’t play the game the same way I do,” you say to yourself. “How strange that all this time I thought they did!”
While cleaning up the strewn checker pieces from the floor, you notice your partner’s chess pieces on a nearby shelf. You pick up the one that looks like a horse, and notice how beautifully crafted it is. You examine some of the other pieces and start to get a feel for how much work must have gone into making them. Then you start to think about the interesting moves you’ve seen your partner make, and how graceful they can be. You realize how difficult it must be to remember how each piece is supposed to move, and have a surge of appreciation for how smart your partner must be for knowing this game so well.
Suddenly, your heart falls wide open.
All you feel is an immense, expansive sense of love — for both your partner and the beautiful game he plays.
The next thing you know, you’ve sent him a text that says:
“I love you now and forever.”
In the years to come, while you both continue to play your own game by your own rules, each of you understands at the deepest level possible that neither of them is inherently right or wrong.
They’re simply different ways of using the same board.
And with that knowledge, the only possible outcome for you both is to live happily ever after.
The (other) End
Jill Whalen is the author of Victim of Thought: Seeing Through the Illusion of Anxiety. She speaks to businesses and organizations, and personally mentors individuals, coaches and leaders to help them uncover their natural well-being and happiness. Sign up for Jill’s Newsletter to stay abreast of her latest content.