Head in the game

How is it that sometimes we so easily lose sight of what we’re doing, where we’re going, and perhaps even who we are?

I recall times in my life when things were moving along just fine, full steam ahead, eyes wide open and head held high. I had a plan. I had a mission. I was going to get this done (whatever this was), and it was going to be just what I wanted. It was going to be great.

I was going to be great.

Then, seemingly from nowhere, I was blindsided. Something came up. Something didn’t work out. As I mentioned yesterday, life can be awfully unpredictable. And when things don’t work out as you’d planned, it can be easy to falter. It can be easy to lose sight of your destination, or even where you are now.

Often, this is because the steps you planned to take now were oriented towards some future goal that is no longer possible or no longer exists. Imagine a high school senior who has spent his whole life dreaming of entering the NBA. He knows that this is the year to succeed in school so that he can be eligible for admission to a Big Ten school—and to excel on the court, so that the right scout will pick up on his moves. Just as his performance now represents a step to the Big Ten school, so the college also represents a step to the ultimate goal: the NBA team of his dreams.

Then, just before basketball season begins in his senior year, he breaks his leg.

He still joins the team (the coach knows he’s good), but never makes it off the bench. Eventually, he stops suiting up altogether—it’s just too painful to watch his teammates out there, the scouts’ eyes all on them, as he warms up a folding chair. Meanwhile, he loses his motivation to do well in school. If he can’t play now, he won’t be invited to a great basketball school anyway, so why push the grades? In fact, college in general begins to look like a bit of a lost cause, since the only reason he wanted to go was to make it to the NBA. He could still do that once his leg heals, but that will happen too late for him to get noticed this year.

And so the whole house of cards collapses.

Of course, in his pain and confusion, the boy with the broken leg can’t see that school and grades now ought to be more important to him than ever. He may not like that basketball will no longer be his ticket to success—indeed, he may deeply despise and resent it—but by failing to turn his attention to his studies, he’s giving up on what is (to a third party) the most obvious alternative path.

Closing our eyes to alternatives: this is the price we pay for holding on to failed visions and outdated dreams.

I recently watched the movie Moonstruck for probably the third or fourth time. It’s a great film—one of my favorites, I’m not ashamed to admit—and for all of its Italian-American chintziness, it actually teaches a good lesson along these lines.

Ronny Cammareri, played by Nicholas Cage, is a big, strong, angry man who lost his hand in a freak accident five years ago and has been blaming his brother (and, I suppose, the rest of the world) for the accident the whole time. Cher comes along (in the form of Loretta Castorini) and takes him to task for his small-mindedness:

Loretta: So. Five years ago your hand got cut off and your woman left you for another man. No woman since then?

Ronny: No.

Loretta: Stupid.

Ronny: She was right to leave me.

Loretta: You think so?

Ronny: Yes.

Loretta: You really are stupid, you know that.

[Loretta pours herself another shot.]

Not a lot is said here, but everything is said, too. Loretta is challenging Ronny not on the facts, which are indisputable, but on his interpretation of them. On his loss of motivation. On his self-inflicted situation. On his refusal to believe that anything could be possible after losing his hand.

Loretta sees things differently. She believes that Ronny subconsciously injured himself because he didn’t believe he was going down the right path. She explains that he was like a wolf who gnaws off its paw to escape a trap. And whether or not she’s right that he injured himself at the outset, the phenomenon she describes certainly applies now. Ronny is the classic example of someone shooting himself in the foot.

But then again, so is Loretta. She talks big to Ronny, but she has convinced herself that she should marry an older man who doesn’t seem to really love her—all because she “has no luck.” She has more or less convinced herself that the universe wants her to settle… and so she will. In the end, perhaps she understands Ronny’s complex so well because she’s living in the same world herself.

Am I overanalyzing this largely lighthearted film? Perhaps. But the whole story-line seems to suggest that openness to alternatives is the best way to get your head back in the game. In the case of those two lovers, it was a change of hair color and a trip to the Metropolitan Opera that did the trick. (On the whole, not a bad solution, I’d say…)

In my case, I’m not sure just what it will be. But one thing strikes me as a possibility: if my head is no longer in the game, perhaps the game has moved somewhere else. If the story has changed, I need to be ready to change with it.

We all talk about dreams and aspirations as though they’re something we should never let go of. “Never give up on your dreams.” “Always follow your heart.” “Never let anyone tell you that you can’t be/do/achieve whatever you want.” The reality is much less romantic.

The reality is that sometimes a certain vision for things just isn’t right. The reality is that stubbornly refusing to change course just because you’ve long pictured things a certain way will result in a crash—just ask the HMS Titanic. At some point, under adverse circumstances, clinging to a desired outcome stops being vision and becomes pride—which proverbially goeth before a fall.

With all of this in mind, the lesson seems to be that when life shifts beneath your feet (as life frequently does), you need to be ready and willing to shift with it. You need to be principally flexible rather than flexible only in principle.

You need to get your head in the game, wherever the game might be.

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