Two Resolutions

“Okay, you first.”

“Me?  Why me?”

“You don’t want to go first?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to.  It’s just that I’d like to have a say in deciding.”

“Okay, no problem.  You want me to go first?”

“You can if you want to.  Or, I will…whatever.”

“Jeez already, make up your mind.”

“My mind?  Why’s it me who has to make the decision?”

“You don’t.  But one of us does or we’ll never get through this.”

Silence.

“Okay then, you can decide.”

“You sure?  In that case, you go first, like I said in the beginning.”

“Yeah, because you don’t want to, right?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to.  I already told you that.  But one of us has to, and you told me to decide.  I chose you.  Why are you making such an argument out of this?”

Me?  How come it’s me who’s arguing?  Takes two to tango.”

arguing

“Okay, look, I’m not arguing.  All I’m doing is trying to get us started.  If you want me to go first, I will.  If you want me to go second, I will.  Just tell me what you want so we can get going on this.”

“Oh, so now I’m the one who’s holding us up?

“I didn’t say that.  But I need to know how you want this to go.  I’m ready to start, but you can go first if you want to.”

“Right, so it is me who has to make the decision!  Just like I thought!”

More silence.

“Okay, let me try again.  It’s not you who has to make the decision.  I said I’d decide who goes first because you said that’s what you wanted, and I chose you.  But, since you have a problem with going first, I will.”

“Who says I have a problem going first?”

“Well, apparently you do or you’d have started by now.  I’ve already suggested that three times.”

“Suggested?  Is that what you call it?  Telling me I have to go first, like I shouldn’t have a say in it?”

“Look, I’m not telling you to do anything, okay?  I’m inviting you to go first.  Or second, if that’s what you prefer.  Just make up your mind or we’ll be here all day.”

“And that’s my fault?  Seems to me you’re the one who’s trying to control everything.”

Prolonged silence this time.

“Look, for the last time, I don’t care who’s in control.  I just want us to get started on this, and obviously somebody has to go first.  Who do you want that to be?”

“You’re asking me to decide?”

“Yes…please!”

“Meaning you don’t want to.”

“Jeez Louise!  Okay, I’ll decide, and I’ll go first.”

“So, now you’ve changed your mind, right?  ‘Cause earlier, you said I could go first.”

“You want to go first?  Please, be my guest.”

“Your guest?  So now I need your permission to go first?”

More silence.  Gritted teeth this time.

“No, you don’t need my permission.”

“I mean, you’re not the boss of me.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Okay.  So now that we got that settled, you can start.”

new year

“Yes!  Thank you!  Finally!  Here it is then, my New Year’s resolution.  I resolve in 2020 to be more patient with everyone I meet.”

“That’s it?”

“Well, that’s my first one.  I have some others, but now it’s your turn.”

“Why are we doing them one at a time?”

“It’s called sharing!  I share one of mine, then you share one of yours.”

“Yeah, I guess, but we could do your whole list, right?  Before we do mine?”

Silence again.  Hostile now.

“You don’t like that?  You’re determined we have to take turns?”

No reply.  The beginning of a snarl.

“Okay, already, I’ll read mine.  Sheesh!  You don’t have to be so grouchy!  Here it is, and I hope it makes you happy.  You ready?  I resolve to try very hard this year to be less argumentative.”

Open disbelief.

“How’m I doing so far?”

Picking Up the Sticks

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.

jackstraws

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.

Grandpa-and-Grandson

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.

protestors

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?

consequences

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.

clean-up-your-mess

Tossing the sticks down is easy, but picking them up is difficult, nigh impossible, indeed.