Every child knows that play is nobler than work.
— Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Work is not a way of arriving at a desired present and securing it against an unpredictable future, but of moving toward a future which itself has a future.
— James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
I’m starting this piece in Phnom Penh. It won’t be done until I’m back in Canada. I’m making more unfinished business for myself. How very appropriate.
You see, as I leave Cambodia unfinished business is all around me. I’ve barely scratched the surface of this city and this country.
Thailand was wonderful and I can’t imagine not returning. Indonesia? There’s so much more of Bali to explore, and it’s only one out of twenty thousand islands. When I began planning my travels, Vietnam, Laos and Japan were on my list. They dropped off because of logistics this time around and I remain fascinated by them.
On the road you hear lots of compelling stories from other travelers. So now I feel a strong pull to Malasia, Myanmar and especially Nepal too.
Add to that the rest of the world: India, China — the Middle East and all of South America.
And those are only the travel possibilities topmost in my mind. Plenty of unfinished business also awaits me in Seattle. Reconnecting with everyone. Taxes. Naturalization. Disposing of my possessions. Exploring skills and careers conducive to indefinite travel.
In the past I’ve felt overwhelmed by the idea of unfinished business. Felt this craze to get it all done now, and only then rest. Complete the tasks.
All these works-in-progress cause little stress, only a sense of excitement. Why the change?
Coincidentally, I recently picked up a book — Finite and Infinite Games (Amazon) by James Carse — which provides a neat way to explain my new frame of mind. It’s a philosophical work which details a way of thinking about all spheres of human affairs as forms of play. In life we play two kinds of games.
Finite Games have inflexible rules, winners and losers — titles, and the players’ objective is to win and end play. Most of sports, business and politics, indeed all of society, is this kind of game.
Infinite Games are played for the purpose of continuing to play. At each step, players try to open more possibilities, rather than shut them down towards a conclusion. Like art; like the aimless play of children. Like the “yes, and” which propels improv comedy. There are no titles to be won, no fixed identities to take on.
So I can understand my evolution as treating more of my life as an infinite game. There will always be finite games to play, of course. However this is a shift in my views on the major components of life.
Take for example work. I realize I’ve been trying not to look at work anymore as a finite game of gaining enough money to end dependence and insecurity, but as an infinite game of exploring the ways in which I can contribute to the world. Seeing relationships as continually flowing exchanges rather than a movement towards fixed roles. Looking upon travel not as a finite game of relaxing to make it through another six months of work, following a rigid itinerary, taking the best picture, ticking off the most attractions — but of finding endless new ways to discover new possibilities of experience.
There have been precursors to this shift. Now that I have a language to describe them they stand out. I look into my past and realize I’ve never liked finite games; I’ve never been at home in the world of recognition and goals. I’ve always feared failure much more than I desired winning. Somehow that fear is loosening.
For example, as a child, I didn’t really value my own academic achievements (even degrees) and I placed no stock in my elevated titles during my career. Even in my passtimes, I’ve no particular ambition for recognition; it takes an annoying amount of cajoling to get me to test for new karate belts. One of the things I deeply enjoy about yoga is the turning away from concepts of achievement and comparison.
It feels strange to say it. It feels weak. But it’s the truth: I don’t really care much about winning. Never have. I just want to keep playing.
All this unfinished business isn’t multiplying my opportunities for failure. It’s multiplying options to continue playing this unending game.