How to Win at Dominion–and Life

Imagine a class of students getting to the end of a grueling program, say, medical or law school, and learning–surprise!–they’d be evaluated not on their grades but on how they had treated their classmates. Did they compete and upstage in any ways necessary to become valedictorian? Or did they share their knowledge and pick up slack on group projects during someone’s crisis? Did they opt out of relationships to study in peace? Though I’ve created a false dichotomy, this quote captures my point about the tension:

“I understand that certain professions require highly specified training. Neurosurgeons need those pre-med classes and biochemical engineers need to get calculus behind them… However, those doctors and engineers are still human beings, and whatever their career courses may hold for them, their first and primary task is becoming the kind of human beings that can be entrusted with power and influence.” – John Eldredge, Killing Lions

Imagine achieving the goal you’d been aggressively pursuing for years and finding it wasn’t enough and wouldn’t satisfy. It’s the famous lesson of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the deathbed realization, “So it really wasn’t about how much money I could earn.” “Oh, my achievements don’t follow me beyond the grave.”

***

My favorite game is a deck-building game called Dominion. My friends and family will tell you I’m always trying to persuade them to play it with me. It has three types of cards: Action cards, Victory cards, and Treasure cards, which function as money. Action cards are by far the most exciting. They make the game fun. Expansion packs are mostly new Action cards. Action cards have colorful illustrations the others don’t. In Dominion, money is recyclable (like the rest of your deck) and Action cards exist to get as much of it as possible in each turn.

Action cards are fun. Treasure cards are necessary. But Dominion is won by having the most victory points.

New Dominion players often forget Treasure and Action cards are means and not ends. Distracted by the allure of recyclable money, they assume whenever they can afford to buy an exciting Action card they should. The end of the game sneaks up on them before they’ve seriously pursued Victory cards.

When the game is over, nothing else matters but victory points. If you didn’t have your priorities straight, you can’t quickly make up for it at the end.

***

It’s an imperfect analogy, but the life applications practically draw themselves. How easily people focus their lives on the jobs that earn money. Money is fun. Jobs are necessary. But we need to keep them in perspective. Obviously, it’s what we do with our jobs and money that counts and lasts when the game of life is over.

“So what are real life victory points?” I asked my main Dominion partner as we drove across Stanford’s campus this November, having played hours of the game in the prior week. We weren’t sure. I’d just finished excitedly explaining the rest of my analogy, but this pivotal consideration gave us pause.

As I pondered the question again later, Proverbs 11:4 jumped out at me with an answer: “Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath [or judgment], but righteousness delivers from death” (NIV). Certainly true of Dominion if “righteousness” is “victory points” and “death” is losing.

“Judgment day” has different meanings for different people, but in any case it’s natural to look back over someone’s life on the occasion of their death and have an opinion (judgment) as to whether it was mostly good or bad. When we’re done playing the game, money has no weight or value and jobs have no inherent benefit. Were they spent wisely? That is to say, were they spent on something imperishable before time was up? That’s all that matters.

***

What does victory look like in a human life?

Victory for a human is winning battles against evil. You can spend everything, all of yourself, in this pursuit, and you will never run out of things to do, and your time will never be wasted. Rejecting hatred, hard-heartedness, arrogance, jealousy, greed, bitterness, etc. will take all of your money, skill, and effort.

Temptations to evil are constant. You will be tempted to lie and cheat, to harshly judge and label those with different opinions than your own, all to make your life more comfortable. Evil will oppose your good intentions; you’ll be misunderstood, sabotaged, betrayed.

Goodness must be cultivated. Of course, we become what we repeatedly do. A life in pursuit of victory gradually shapes us into the type of person who finds satisfaction and delight in goodness; “the kind of human being that can be entrusted with power and influence.”

Defeating evil requires strategy. It is not conquered carelessly. Unless actively resisted, it wins; look around at this world. But the good news is that you can actively resist it. Keep your eyes on the prize. You can win at Dominion, and you can win at life.

The Unsigned Masterpiece: What’s your explanation?

When you’re indoors, everything you see is the result of personal intention and action. Sitting in this borrowed bedroom, I see the story in everything.

The walls are carpenters and painters and electricians and HVAC installers. Who designs paint colors? Continue reading “The Unsigned Masterpiece: What’s your explanation?”

“Merry Christmas, Can I Have Some Money?”

‘Tis the season for giving. And for asking. December means requests for time, donations, and especially money. Salvation Army bell ringers take shifts in grocery store vestibules. At work, there’s a box for a company-wide canned food drive in the breakroom and a modest wishlist from a local family who have fallen on hard times posted on my boss’s office door.

Emails from non-profits requesting my financial gift multiply in my inbox, each representing lives I could change for the better with a few clicks. They tell me my year-end gifts would be doubled or even tripled, so I know that when I opt out, not only am I depriving the cause of my own contribution, but of some donor’s doubled dollars as well.

Continue reading ““Merry Christmas, Can I Have Some Money?””

When I Crowd Sourced my Self Worth (Guest Post on Our Weird Lives!)

My blogger friend Jordin graciously hosted me for a guest post on Halloween. Her site, Our Weird Lives, is about embracing your weirdness honestly and connecting with others through the process. Love it. Here’s the post:

I have an embarrassing confession. In college, I evaluated all my choices through the opinions of a group of girls from high school. I’d wonder what they’d think of the outfit I was wearing, the guy I was meeting up with, or the event or activity I was trying out, and make myself miserable assuming their disapproval. They were with me always. They followed me to class, to chapel, to the dining hall. They were with me in the dorms. This was a highly imaginative exercise, because I barely knew these girls. I’d played soccer or had gym class with a few of them, but we were never close.

Continue reading at Our Weird Lives

Sticking My Hand in a Snake Den: Controversial Facebooking

Everyone knows that a reasonable political debate on Facebook is like a unicorn sighting. Facebook seems better for reading information and multiple perspectives than effectively changing minds.

Leaving comments on controversial Facebook threads has never ended satisfyingly for me. When I comment, I’m not picking a fight.
Continue reading “Sticking My Hand in a Snake Den: Controversial Facebooking”

Supposedly the Most Relaxing Thing in the World

Haley Phelps

I sunbathe precariously on my back. I’ve eased a boogie board into supporting me as I float. Supposedly floating is the most relaxing thing in the world, and I know I don’t do it often enough. How is it possible that I float precariously? Trust in the bobbing water to keep me up while aware I could tumble into it any minute?

Continue reading “Supposedly the Most Relaxing Thing in the World”

When You’re Not Feeling It Anymore

We use a marital analogy: “The honeymoon is over.” Is this telling? There’s no disillusionment like the loss of infatuation. The honeymoon is over for me. I am unmarried; I am restless in my faith. Young ecstatic joy has faded; what remains is not enough to live on. I knew life would have bad days, nights, seasons. But I must’ve thought being a Christian meant an upper limit on days of doubt and loneliness and darkness. Not so, I’ve learned.

Continue reading “When You’re Not Feeling It Anymore”

What “I Want to Wake Up Next to You” Really Means

What takes mental realities from thoughts to physical expression? Supposedly, “The truth changes things,” but sometimes knowledge does nothing to change our behavior. When does conviction become action?

The Three Types of Truth

“For a Christian, there are three (not two) sides to every story… relative, absolute, relational,” offers Leonard Sweet in his book Nudge. I had been waiting my whole life for someone to break truth into three parts instead of only two. Relative and absolute have never sufficiently accounted for human motivation/behavior, especially with regard to the divine. I won’t spend much time on them. Absolute and relative truth matter, but we act on relational truth. The more I have tried to define relational truth, the more definitions I have come up with. One thing is for sure: so much of the truth we live by transcends the relative and absolute.

Relative truth can be true for you but not necessarily for me. Absolute truth is true for both of us, whether we know it or not. Relational truth is what’s true between us. Relational truth blends the other two forms of truth. It’s relative: the same action or word or situation can be interpreted differently based on the listener’s perspective. It’s absolute: a sped-up heart rate (a sign of emotion) can be measured objectively.

Absolute truth: the boy was struck by a car and flew off his bicycle. Relative truth: he should have stayed at home that night. Relational truth: he was grounded and disobeyed his parents by going out.

Relational truth can also be your reaction to another type of truth—why do you care about a given fact? It’s the human interest-angle on a situation or set of numerical data. It’s the story. The why behind the what. In the example, it’s sad the boy fell off his bike, and it’s debatable from a philosophical perspective whether he should have stayed at home, but it’s interesting that he disobeyed his parents. That’s the one I would want to know more about, the one I can potentially relate to.

Living Out Relational Truth

Since each person has a relationship with oneself, any choice can have relational impact. People have avoided bad decisions by reasoning, “I couldn’t live with myself if I did that.” We’re also in relationship with other humans, with God, with animals, and even with nature.

Relational truths most affect our day-to-day actions. Knowing millions die daily of preventable causes unfortunately does not move most of us to urgent action. But if your loved one’s life were on the line, it would become desperately urgent.

It damages relationships to put principles (absolute/relative truth) before listening to/respecting others (relational truth). The way a speaker wields absolute and relative truth has a big impact on the listener’s relational truth. “That’s true for you but not for me,” is sometimes the case, but anything that affects either of us is true for our relationship, which is a third thing neither of us fully controls.

Relational truth is the reality of your experience. It’s your unique angle on the truth others can see/interact with/ignore/debate. It doesn’t need to be defended or proven; it just is what it is. The truth of whether this room is hot or cold is relative. 100 people might have 100 different perspectives. But when I tell you I feel cold, that’s the truth, and it’s not up for debate.

The Brain Chemistry of Love

Why are we likelier to act on relational truth? Because it is our brain chemistry. Relational truths either make us feel good and continue our patterns, or feel bad and try different behaviors to end our pain. Brain chemistry shapes our reality and our well-being; it is the substance of experiences like happiness and sadness.* Peace is the absence of stress/anxiety hormones, and probably the presence of other hormones I don’t know the science behind. A friend with bipolar disorder described feeling like a different person on a prior medication, which she even thinks made her more religious. Times her medication didn’t function as intended were some of the very lowest of her life.

If we believe we’re worthless (a relational truth), we struggle through our days because we’re in a bad relationship with ourselves. Feeling insulted results in a flood of stress-inducing chemicals, and believing negative things about ourselves is self-insult. I’ve heard it takes about eight hours to come back to baseline, chemically speaking, after a ten-minute argument with a loved one. It can take up to twenty-four hours after a particularly upsetting incident.

Healthy relationships create desirable brain chemistry states. Healthy touch, emotional validation, safety, positive anticipation, dopamine, oxytocin, etc. Love hugely impacts brain chemistry. Putting love in the most clinical way possible, when people create these favorable conditions we want to maximize our exposure to them.

The fuzzy romantic (or obsessive, depending on your perspective) things people say have their basis in brain chemistry. “I want to wake up next to you every morning” means, “I want to begin each day with the hit of dopamine I’ll get by seeing you.” “I can’t live without you,” means, “when we are apart I experience an addict’s craving and I hate that restlessness.” “I’ve never felt this way about anyone before,” means “I have seriously never had this much oxytocin in my blood at once.” Most new moms are flooded with snuggly feelings (chemicals) toward their new baby. This biological occurrence is experienced as relational and results in the action of caring for the baby.

Relational Truth and Faith

Why do people reject or embrace a particular religion? I think Leonard Sweet (author of the quote above) calls out Christians specifically because Christianity is predicated on the love of God, a relational truth. We can debate logic and ethics and relative merits of given belief systems, but ultimately what tips someone over the edge into this religion is the lived experience of being loved unconditionally.

People don’t give their life to Jesus because someone has convinced them on an intellectual level that Christianity is more sensible than absurd. Instead, they say things like, “You’ve convinced me, but I still don’t believe.” People have to encounter the love of Christ directly to make the leap from uncertainty to commitment. Some are skeptical as to the reality of these direct encounters because, for instance, medication can seem to result in increased religiosity. But all of life’s experiences, good and bad, are filtered through a person’s chemical state. We don’t generally discount the mental state of people who are on medication outright; if we did, there wouldn’t be much American society left (the Mayo Clinic suggests 70% of Americans take prescription drugs as of this writing). It is good for a new mother to care for her baby even if the motivation is chemical.

Love is a form of relational truth, experienced in the body but no less real or true for that. We act on that which we care about. True love moves us to action. So what takes thoughts to actions? In short, love.

*Credit for this post idea goes to the friend who shared with me her theory that brain chemistry is everything, suggesting, in effect that, what every person ultimately wants out of life is balanced brain chemistry. It’s so true!

The Dark Side of Getting Clean: What No One Tells You

Hi, I’m Karin and I used to be codependent.

Codependency is “losing a sense of self because you’re so afraid of the emotions of others.” It’s “an excessive reliance on other people for approval and a sense of identity.” Giving others the ability to make you happy or, by extension, sad. Living this way was usually unfulfilling, but when things went well it was always worth the wait. I was addicted to approval. My default feeling was “forsaken” (yeah, let that sink in for a second… ouch), but sometimes I felt completely connected, understood, accepted, and loved, seen exactly the way I wanted to be seen. The mountaintop moments of an addiction keep us willingly living in a valley for years.

I just read the memoir of Jen Waite, who watched her “perfect” life unravel as she learned her husband was a psychopath. I used to picture a wild-haired, wild-eyed man clutching a blood-stained butcher’s knife when I heard “psychopath.” Think instead of the last person you’d suspect, the life of the party, funny and interesting and charming. Seemingly too good to be true. People often say they didn’t believe in the term “soulmate” until they met their psychopathic partner. A sociopath (the terms are interchangeable) seems to see you exactly the way you want to be seen.

When Jen went to a therapist to make sense of her shattered life and move on, she was invited to consider the parts of herself that were willing to overlook her husband’s red flags. Not to blame herself, but to learn and grow. Her memoir’s back cover reminds us, “The longing to live inside a fairy tale makes you vulnerable to those charming sociopaths in search of someone to exploit.” —Joseph Burgo, PhD

It’s normal to want to live in a fairy tale. Social media gives us an easy way to portray one. Perpetually clean, well-lit rooms, a baby giggling at the camera as Mom and Dad kiss wearing expensive or hipster clothes. Artful shots of exotic places. Decadent-looking foods. Complete approval, more likes than a person can be bothered to view individually.

This desire draws us into all kinds of addictions. “The longing to live inside a fairy tale” can make us vulnerable to almost anything. Our souls/bodies/well-being seem a small price to pay for feeling we have everything we ever wanted, if only for a moment. Getting clean is hard and complex. Most real feelings don’t compare favorably to being high, partly because we need to experience normalcy for being high to have meaning.

As I have gotten less codependent, I have gotten lonelier. This is the dark side of holding the keys to your own happiness. I no longer spend most of my time in a pit of lonely despair, but in return I must accept that no one will ever understand me completely. Those times I thought someone did were more about what I was willing to believe than what was actually happening. Having a self, being authentically yourself, makes you ultimately separate and different from everyone else.

In Hillbilly Elegy, a book about his own turbulent upbringing, J.D. Vance describes, “‘a typical middle class life.’ Kind of boring, by some standards, but happy in a way you appreciate only when you understand the consequences of not being boring.” Accepting that reality can underwhelm is not giving up, but growing up. It takes maturity to admit boredom is not the worst thing there is.

Authentic lives contain loneliness, tedium, temptations to impatience, stuckness. These are the price of keeping one’s mind unaltered, leaving substances unabused, having a clear perception of those around you. Much as I hate for it to be true, they are the price of health. It’s tempting to claim every single thing will be much better once you’re free of an addiction, but I quietly admit there are a few drawbacks.

It takes discipline, patience, and creativity to find healthy ways to make life amazing, and that’s how boredom serves us: by demanding these traits of us. Chasing an addictive high provides few moments of reflection or self-improvement.

It’s virtually useless to try to change a sociopath, and they rarely change on their own, because they are incapable of self-reflection. Because they cannot look at darkness closely enough to understand, they cause it wherever they go. I would sooner accept loneliness than that fate.

Boys Don’t Make Passes at Girls who Wear Glasses

“Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

I have operated by this weird, super-sexist adage for most of my life. Where did I get this idea? I don’t remember anyone telling me. Maybe it was those makeover movies in which a girl wears big glasses at the beginning and looks gorgeous once she removes them, like Princess Diaries and She’s All That.

I didn’t recite it to myself or anything, but I truly thought putting glasses on my face would blend me into the woodwork, take me from a potential object of desire to a relatable and desexualized human being whenever I wanted. The reverse of Mia Thermopolis. If it works in one direction, why not the other?

This general logic was pervasive. Once, a college roommate had to meet a certain guy at the locked door of our dorm. She wasn’t interested and she wasn’t sure how to tell him nicely, but maybe he would lose interest on his own if she helped it along a little. She bunched up her hair into a ponytail, changed into a T-shirt, and put on her glasses before heading out the door. Did it help? Who knows. At the time it sounded perfectly reasonable.

In years past, I’ve purposely worn my glasses around specific men so they wouldn’t be attracted to me. Just in case. To keep us in the friend zone without a difficult conversation. This sounds naive, but it came from an earnest place. It sounds one-dimensional and objectifying, and it absolutely was. I had a lot of misinformation, but ultimately I think it came from a place of wishful thinking. I wanted to turn off the fact of my being a woman whenever it suited me. I wanted this to be possible so I could preserve all friendships indefinitely and be seen as equally intelligent and well-rounded as anyone (as any man, that is to say). To be able to believe my achievements were based on merit and not the fact that it would look good to have a girl on the team.

At some point I began to realize the glasses thing wasn’t all I hoped. A random line in a journal from this time reads: “You’re a fool if you think wearing glasses will keep me from falling in love with you.” I may have been a little dramatic, but the sentiment proved accurate because a few years later, I dated a man who actively liked glasses. I wore them the second time we met. I don’t remember if it was intentional, or if I was just tired. Either way, I “risked” wearing the glasses and it “backfired.” He later put them on a list of things that attracted him to me. He misread my signal, and though flattered I felt disappointed I had so little control or awareness over how I was coming across. So the adage was false, useless. Back to the drawing board.

It’s not the glasses, of course. Some days they make me feel like Zooey Deschanel in New Girl and others they make me feel like Where’s Waldo. But wouldn’t it be nice to have some control over how others see us? I wish I could turn my entire body into one of those black censorship strips at will so that random men simply cannot see it and are forced to look into my face instead.

I wanted there to be one easy trick to getting people to see you as a person instead of a woman. As a fellow human instead of a rival or conquest. A piece of glass and plastic to magically pass on the passes whenever I’d like without having to explain myself or experience any discomfort. But if there is such a trick, I’m sorry to tell you that it’s not wearing glasses.