Non-Zero Sum Game

My favorite movie in 2016 was 'Arrival'--the one with the squid-like aliens and Amy Adams. One of the aliens' message is my message for this post. This is your spoiler alert.

The aliens don't quite 'land' on earth. Their oblong (weird?) spaceships float (menacingly hover?) just above the ground, in several spots all over the globe (ready for full attack?). Things don't go smoothly. We assume that the gift/tool they are offering is a weapon---we project the idea that there is a zero-sum game happening, that the aliens are here to destroy us, to go to war (the aliens' written language even looks like a circular Rorshach--a perfect metaphor for a whole planets' projections). A fear-based belief system rears its ugly head to assume the worst about the 'other,' when the other's message is (as is often the case) the complete opposite of our assumption/projection.

The movie ends up being a lot about language--how the language we use affects our perceptions, & vice versa. The aliens are offering a 'tool,' but we interpret the word 'tool' as 'weapon,' and we see hostility in every move they make. I see this in myself. Months ago I received a simple piece of feedback from my husband--the man wanted to 'help' by adding lemon to the tuna salad. I read it as an attack---the word 'help' signaled that I was lacking somehow, that I was wrong--and I got defensive, assuming attack on his part. It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon making tunafish sandwiches, but fear (in the form of perceived wrongness and therefore loss/abandonment) hijacked my awareness, and my husband became my enemy. It was a zero-sum tunafish game, and I was refusing to lose. Ridiculous. But it happens all the all of us. 

As a species, I think the concept of zero-sum game (i.e. war) is a central belief about life itself, and I see this belief screwing up our perceptions of ourselves, and our relationships, in fundamental ways. We have a core belief as a species--a bug in our code--that there is a scarcity of resources, and that someone has to lose for us to win (or vice versa--which is the foundation of self sacrifice, another nightmare of inner war). This one concept pervades almost every human experience, including our larger systems. For example:  

  • Our money system (eg. the federal reserve inflates the currency and there appears to be a scarcity of $) 
  • Our school system (eg. As & Bs, ranked tests, pass/fail) 
  • Our relationships (eg. the belief that there's not enough men or women to date)
  • Our biology stories (eg. 'survival of the fittest')

But life is not a zero-sum game. There is more than enough for everyone. Children get this...sharing happens naturally (after the child is themselves fulfilled), until we are told we should share, implying that sharing isn't in our nature, and that there is a scarcity. Lack/scarcity is something we are taught. This belief is not something we are born with. 

So let's imagine if we had no concept of war, or even of loss. What if, when we played games, 'losing' was also a win? Some coaches & athletes understand this and frame their sport in this way. And it is actually true (it is not a positive attitude). Losing is a win. Failing, or losing, is the very way we learn (think of toddlers falling down 500 times before they walk with stability). Moreover, there is not a scarcity of skill and learning available (one toddler need not beat out another toddler's walking skills...though some parents would put this on them!). Look at every domain (relationships, work, money, health) without any capacity to 'lose.' Again, this is not an attitude of abundance/law of attraction stuff, but rather seeing things as they are

All of my biggest wins came out of 'losses.' For example, I found my career/work after failing at business classes (I initially thought psychology was too it must not be what I should do! Talk about a scarcity idea...'no pain, no gain' bullshit). My health--I knocked my body around for a long time (self-neglecting in countless ways, including trying to be 'healthy'), until I started to truly listen to my body. We've somehow believed in a zero-sum game in almost every human endeavor, but the truth is abundance, or win-win. Kiran Trace describes this in really helpful ways. Check out a few short videos from her on the topic here:  

I realized, when I dropped the zero-sum game on that Sunday afternoon, that I could actually enjoy my sandwich. My husband won the sandwich game--he was right about the lemon. And I won--because I got to eat a yummy sandwich and have a husband who is right about flavor profiles. But man, did I fight receiving his help. In 'Arrival' the aliens are here to help us, to offer tools (we help them at a future time--they can see multiple timelines at once); all they want is the chance to give us our gift. Come on, humans! Take the gift, you silly gooses. 

Non-zero-sum game is the science-y word for win-win, for what we used to have as a species:  gift economies, wherein all trade was win-win, and with each exchange of hands both parties gained. The aliens in the film are working from this 'economy.' There is a gorgeous book called 'The Gift' by Lewis Hyde: It describes how gift economies are our actual human history. The zero-sum game idea appears to be a bug in our human code--an idea entered into our psyches in surprisingly recent history. The win-loss/zero-sum concept is actually more alien to us. We once participated in gift economies all over the globe--there were ever-expanding circles of sharing, of easy abundance and natural evolution, of mutual thriving. I guess we just needed some friendly aliens to remind us of our earthly humanity.

Big love and non zero-sum games to you all. xoxo