Jungian Psychology Series: The Game of Life

Just as the first dream we remember from childhood can be very significant, often hinting at our destiny and the key forces that will shape our life, so the last dream we have before death may summarize how we have lived our life. An example of this is this dream of an 82 year-old man named Carl. On the morning of the day he died Carl dreamed: “I was playing a round of golf, but I didn’t play very well.” In this dream the game of golf is used to symbolize Carl’s life. Although by society’s standards Carl lived a moral and successful life, by the standards of his own soul he fell short of his deeper potential and destiny. Sometimes it is helpful to reflect on how life is like a game and, most importantly, how we are playing that game.

A 47 year-old man dreamed: “I am in what seems like an ancient place of carved and weathered red sandstone rock. I see that it is a basketball arena. Although the court and scoreboard are very contemporary in design, the rock and landscape in which they are placed make it seem like they have been there for thousands of years.” Sometimes our dreams unite specific images and ideas in order to help us discover a connection or relationship between them that we have previously missed. In this dream, a modern game is placed in the context of a much earlier historical period. The dream suggests that the metaphor of life as a game has an ancient history, perhaps going back to the dawn of civilization. If we reflect on the nature of games–and life–we can see why this is so.

Games have rules which guide their play and the same seems to be true of life. Although society, peers, and family are often quite willing to tell us life’s rules–and some of this advice can be very helpful–the most important rules are those which flow from our inner nature, or soul. Our inner nature includes our different temperaments, our innate strengths and weaknesses, our talents, potentials, and, ultimately, our destiny. Our destiny is the expression and fulfillment of our inner nature within the context of the world we are born into. That we each have a destiny is implied by dreams (like Carl’s above) of playing games well or poorly, and also by dreams of  being prepared or unprepared for classes and tests. If there is no goal to be attained through life–no destiny to be approached–then there is no real game to “win,” no class to take, or test to pass. The fact that such dreams are actually quite common suggests that the evolving personality does have a goal, or vision, which we may assist in actualizing, or not. To succeed in the game of life is to fulfill one’s destiny.

The game background of life helps to account for some interesting psychological phenomena. For example, a woman at midlife experienced considerable distress whenever her favorite basketball team, the Detroit Pistons, lost. While it is natural to experience disappointment when your favorite team loses a game, this Pistons fan would remain depressed until her team won again. If they were eliminated from the playoffs or lost the championship, she would undergo a period of depression that lasted for weeks. What would account for these dramatic and persistent changes in her mood? As it turns out, this talented and capable woman was not following the call of her true vocation due to a fear of taking a risk. She was, basically, shirking her destiny. Because of this, she projected the “game” of her own life onto the Detroit Pistons and, unconsciously, attempted to live her destiny through them. She became extremely depressed when they lost because their losses resonated with the disturbing, but half-conscious awareness that she was herself failing at the game of life.

A similar dynamic occurs in some people who spend their weekends glued to the sports channels. They attempt to live the game of life vicariously through the athletes they watch, perhaps because their workday life is lacking in personal meaning. Watching sports becomes a substitute for discovering and living their own destiny, of “going for the gold,” so to speak. It is not that they need to get off the couch and go play football with their friends (although, for some, this might be a step in the right direction). Rather, they need to discover (or rediscover) what they want from life and, most importantly, what life wants from them. And they need to begin living life like it matters.

At the other end of the spectrum are individuals who seem to be in touch with the fact that there is something important to be accomplished in their life, that there is a game to “win,” but they misinterpret the real object and goal of this game. They experience a drive to succeed, but it gets misdirected. For example, a man in his early thirties dreamed: “I am at a horse racing track at night. The track is dimly lit by large spotlights on nearby metal towers. As the race begins the horses race violently and somewhat chaotically under the aggressive direction of their jockeys. Things get so out of hand that they are running into each other, and knocking over the track fences and the light towers. Sparks from downed electrical wires illuminate the grim scene.” This young man, embarking on a new career, had let his competitiveness with other professionals overrun him. The real goal of life–the maturation of the personality and the living of one’s destiny-was projected upon the outer world and relationships resulting in a destructive competitiveness. In the game of life, the deepest battle is with ourselves. Do we have the desire, courage, discipline, and perseverance to develop our unique gifts–and weaknesses–for the sake of something more important than ourselves–the soul and our destiny.

From one perspective, sports games are like plays, the enactment of a ritual that points towards something beyond itself. In his book, Ego and Archetype, Edward Edinger shares the dream of a dying man.  “Two prize-fighters are involved in a ritual fight. Their fight is beautiful. They are not so much antagonists in the dream as they are collaborators, working out an elaborate, planned design. They are calm, unruffled and concentrated. At the end of each round they retire to a dressing room. In the dressing room they apply ‘makeup.’ I watch one of them dip his finger in some blood and smear it on the face of his opponent and himself. They return to the ring and resume their fast, furious but highly controlled performance.”

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