Back in the Box

Back in the Box

In the footnotes of one of his books, Dr. Robert Sapolsky includes a note on people with “Type A” tendencies and the effects of their chronically activated stress responses.

He writes:

“I listened to this sermon, called Back in the Box, by the Reverend John Ortberg. It concerns an incident from his youth. His grandmother, saintly, kind, nurturant, also happened to be a viciously competitive and skillful monopoly player, and his summer visits to her were littered with his defeats at the game.

He described one year where he practiced like mad, honed his Machiavellian instinct, developed a ruthless jugular-gripping style and finally mopped up the board with her. After which, his grandmother rose and calmly put the pieces away.

‘You know,’ she said offhandedly, ‘this is a great game, but when it is all over with, the pieces just go back in the box.’

Amass your property, your hotels… [the sermon takes off from there]… your wealth, your accomplishments, your awards, your whatevers and eventually it will all be over and the pieces will go back in the box. And all you are left with is how you lived your life.

I listened to this tape while racing to beat red lights on my way to a 5:00 a.m. commuter train, Powerbook ready so as not to miss a moment of work on the train, eating breakfast one-handed while driving, using the time to listen to this sermon on tape as research for this chapter. And this sermon, whose trajectory was obvious from the first sentence and was filled with Jesus and other things I do not subscribe to, reduced me to tears.”

We’re all dying for something

Look around you. Look at all the pieces you’re accumulating and take them away for a minute to see what will remain when the board is cleared off. All you are left with is how you’ve lived: how you’ve played the game and the people you’ve been playing it with.

We’re all dying for something. The soldier sprinting into gunfire for the sake of his friends isn’t any more spendthrift with the coin of his life than the office worker slumping over his desk with a heart attack.

We don’t get to choose how long the game goes on, but we decide how we play and whose company we share along the way.

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