My grandfathers, when they were just boys in the late part of the 19th century, played some version of a game called Pick Up Sticks with their family and friends. In their day, it was likely known as Spillicans or Jackstraws, but the premise was the same as when they introduced the game to me a half-century later.
Their sticks were almost surely made of wood, resembling long toothpicks—or perhaps of straw. Mine, thanks to the unbridled proliferation of plastic in the mid-1950’s, were a colourful array of synthetic sticks, identical except for colour.
The game was simple in concept, difficult in execution. The sticks were held in one player’s hand, then released to spill on the playing surface in a loose, randomly-jumbled pile. Any sticks falling separately, away from the pile, were removed before play began.
The first player then attempted to extricate a stick from the pile without moving any other stick. If successful, (s)he tried to remove a second, and a third. Each player’s turn ended when another stick was inadvertently moved in the attempt.
In some variations of the game—certainly in the one I played with my grandfathers—sticks of different colours were worth different values. The single black stick was the most valuable; the most plentiful yellow sticks were worth the least.
I loved when I beat them at the game, basked in the praise they lavished upon me—having no idea then, of course, that my winning was their doing.
The game helped to develop and test a variety of skills for all who played it: hand-eye coordination, visual discrimination, spatial relations, and visual-motor dexterities, to name a few. And patience, of course, and attention to the task at hand. Every player had a hawk-eye trained on the pile during every other player’s move, watching for (perhaps hoping for) the slightest movement of other sticks.
I haven’t played the game in years. But I’ve been thinking about it lately as I read about and listen to the challenges facing the legislators we have elected to govern us in our western world. What a tangled web of sticks they face!
A partial list of those challenges, often directly contradictory to each other, includes:
0 embracing globalism vs. defending sovereignty,
0 pursuing free trade vs. safeguarding home-grown industries,
0 growing the economy vs. protecting the environment,
0 reducing national debt vs. increasing spending on social programmes,
0 encouraging immigration vs. protecting the homeland, and
0enhancing security vs. increasing civil liberties.
I envision such challenges, and countless more, lying jumbled on the table in front of our beleaguered politicians, like a nightmarish game of Pick Up Sticks, daring them to make a move.
Deal with it! the supporters of any particular issue might demand.
It’s complicated! the legislators might reply, fearful of the repercussions they will face if, by acting, they disturb any of the intermingled sticks—sticks representing issues of equal importance to others of their constituents.
Approve that pipeline! We need it to move our bitumen. The economy is at risk!
Stop supporting the fossil-fuel industry! The environment is at risk!
Can one of those sticks be moved without jostling the other?
Lower taxes to encourage business to spend! That will expand the economy!
Stop cutting back on the social safety net! People need help!
You’re increasing debt to unsustainable levels. It’s a ticking bomb!
With which stick do legislators start? And will they then be able to get at the others, too?
Fix our immigration system! We need skilled workers coming in to the country!
Keep those people out! They’re taking away our jobs!
Is it even possible to handle both those sticks?
Scott Fitzgerald, the flawed but immensely-talented American author, once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Opposed ideas might be defined as those which are not synonymous, but nor are they directly contradictory.
Trying to manage contradictory thoughts or values, on the other hand—or having to synthesize them—can be so upsetting that people who are possessed of two (or more) will often eschew acting on any of them. This state of mind, referred to as cognitive dissonance, is why most of us seek to avoid situations where it is likely to arise.
Noah Chomsky, an American professor of linguistics, a self-professed anarchist and human rights activist, has written, “Most people…can’t tolerate too much cognitive dissonance. I don’t want to deny that there are outright liars…[but] I don’t think that’s the norm. The norm is obedience, adoption of uncritical attitudes, taking the easy path of self-deception.”
If he’s right, how can we legitimately expect our elected officials to get it right in the face of so many contradictory realities, and so many contradictory demands from people who have come down on one side or the other of those issues? Game or not, it must be a nightmare.
My grandfathers have long since passed away. I cannot remember whatever happened to my game of Pick Up Sticks, long gone as well. But I do know that I have no desire to play it on the public stage, and I do have some sympathy for those whose job it is to clean up the mess.
Tossing the sticks down is easy, but picking them up is difficult, nigh impossible, indeed.