Monday, April 16, 2012

Poker and the Self

A Stranger asks, 

"Simple questions this time. Since we've played online poker together before, I felt a desire to ask -What was it like when you were dealt a Royal Flush, and the follow up, how well did you play it? What size was the pot?  I imagine other people thinking they've caught pairs or straights with the royalty, but I can also see you winning with everyone checking til the end."
Actually, I won very little on what is the biggest hand.  When face cards of a common suit start showing up, folks are reticent to bet and when you have it, the last thing you want is everyone to fold and not give you a chance to show it.  So, you check along, hoping someone else will start raising, but often it doesn't happen and it didn't then.  The dream hand turned out not to play out like the dream you might think it would be.  A lesson for life.

Michael Schmidt asks, 
"What is the optimum size of the self?  It doesn't make sense if you take it too literally--but it may be a question worth unpacking. Clearly different people, different cultures and different religions have different notions of how much the "self" should encompass, or how much it should be emphasized. Must the self be maintained at all?"
Clearly related to the poker question.  In the case of the royal straight flush, you want to show it -- in part because it is so unusual and you want people to enjoy the rarity of the moment, but in part because YOU have it.  It is in part ego -- look how strong MY hand is. So, we have here both a sense of belonging to the community that is larger than me and wanting my success to be our success; but then there is also the individuality that is a central characteristic to Western society where I want to celebrate that it is ME, ME, ME and not little old you, none of you. 

That dichotomy is, I believe, one of the central features of human consciousness.  We are capable of holding both subjective and objective perspectives concerning the same events.  On the one hand, the sun, moon, and stars all rise to one side of me and set to the other.  The universe, from my vantage point, does revolve around me.  On the other hand, I can comprehend how completely insignificant I am in the scale and history of the universe.  I can understand what things look like in a way that does not consider its effects on me.  We can both look at a situation and understand it in terms of our own desires, preferences, and history, but also understand what it looks like to someone outside of myself, the proverbial "fly on the wall."  We teach children compassion and empathy first by putting themselves in the place of another -- what would you feel like if you were Jimmy and someone had done that to you? -- then to the no place -- What would you think if you saw someone doing that?  Here, there is no connection with the actor or the victim, just an observation of the act itself as a purely objective occurrence.

It is this ability to switch back and forth that is key to authentic human being.  If the self becomes too large, that is, if we are incapable of thinking beyond ourselves, we give unreasonable degrees of meaning to small things.  We lose our sense of perspective and lose the ability to live in the world outside of our own head.  On the other hand, if the self becomes too small, if we live without an appreciation for the significance things have in our lived experiences of them, we live a meaningless life.  There is a reason no one wants to be Mr. Spock until you have a broken heart.  Being able to occupy an objective standpoint where we can see ourselves from outside is useful and necessary, but it is equally as important to experience our lives as subjects.

So, how big ought the self be?  It depends on the context, but it must not be too much or too little.