When the Game is Stacked Against You

I had been looking forward to this game night for days. A friend and I were pulling out the classic Agricola game for a couple of hours of great fun. At the beginning of the game, you are dealt a number of cards, each of which will give you a particular ability or benefit or resource stream. There are hundreds of cards but you are only dealt a few. And some are better than others. A lot better. In fact, there are a handful of cards that some have called “broken cards.” Getting one of those cards gives you such an advantage that other players may have little realistic chance of winning. You really hope to get one of those cards!

So Jordan and I took our handful of cards, checked them out, plotted our strategies and began the first of 14 game rounds. Two rounds into the game, Jordan played out one of his cards. He had been dealt one of those “broken” cards. Bully for him. Bad for me. This was now going to be a tough game to win, but I am up for a challenge, and this was going to test my full range of gaming skills. I would not be daunted. I am not a quitter. If you try hard enough, you can still win. Right?

In round four, Jordan played another card. A “broken” card. I am not kidding…and I was in no mood to laugh at any point the rest of that night. All fun immediately disappeared. This card, paired with the other, meant that I had zero chance to win the game, a game whose rounds would stretch out another hour. An hour. I told you that I am not a quitter, but I essentially checked out. I didn’t care. Make a dumb move. Why not? Why bother? I have no chance anyway.

Now Jordan was having a blast, all the while trying to be gracious in light of his good fortune. I know, I know. I should have been overjoyed that the next hour was going to be awesome for Jordan. I was not overjoyed. I was borderline obnoxious. Something happens in a game when you don’t stand a chance. At least for me. I cannot repeat what went through my mind when Jordan played a third “broken card” three rounds later.   I tried to force a smile. I couldn’t.  The game could not end soon enough.

As we were putting away the game pieces later, a thought flashed through my mind, and it hasn’t left me since. “This was just a game for you, but this is real life for a lot of people you know.” Setback after setback after setback. Card after card after card stacked against them. Disappointment after disappointment after disappointment. It calls to mind this word from the Bible:

Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick, but a sudden good break can turn life around. (The Bible, The Message , Proverbs 13:12)

Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick. You try so hard. You aren’t a quitter, but every time you start to make a little bit of progress, you hit a wall. Why bother? You’ve got no chance. You lose heart. I experienced that for a two hour game, but it is an entire year for many people. I know the stories. Real stories.

Your car stops working and the repair cost is worth more than the car. You can’t afford to get it fixed, and you can’t get a loan. With no car, you lose your job. With no income, you get evicted from your home. Then you find yourself on the street with your kids dragging black trash bags holding all you have left. You apply for emergency housing, praying to get accepted. You end up in public housing, and it is a grace. But now getting a job will be extremely difficult. Oh, and now some people look at you a little differently.

There is a narrative about why people are poor; I read it in comments and hear glimpses of it in conversations. “They just don’t try hard enough. They take no initiative. Just look at those people in public housing, living off the government. They’re just lazy.” Maybe some are.  Some are working very hard.  But others are experiencing what I felt playing a board game. Why try anymore? I just don’t have a chance.

“Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick.”

Hopelessness can look an awful lot like apathy, like complacency, like laziness.

I have met lazy people before. Ironically, I have been employed at jobs with a few of them!

There is more than one story why people don’t have a job. Why they seek housing assistance. Why they sit at home. Some are just heartsick. Because every time they step out, they run into some new obstacle. Another bill. Another fee. Another “we hired someone else.” Another emergency loan with an absurd interest rate. Another medical emergency. Another bike stolen. Another car repair. Another person assuming they are lazy or irresponsible.  It’s like one step forward, two steps back. Every week. And it takes a toll.

“But a sudden good break can turn life around.”

[And that will be the focus of my next blog post: “Broken Cards. Broken Spirit. Part 2.”]

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