You have probably never heard of François-André Danican Philidor. If you were to see a picture of him, he would look like one of a hundred English aristocrats of the eighteenth century: Large nose, powdery wig, silk cravat, waist coat, the works. He was a musician by trade but is remembered today because he wrote a book about Chess. In it he explored nine different ways to begin a game. What he realized, and is remembered for saying, is that “good play of the pawns [is] the soul of chess.”
And why are they the soul of chess? Because they are practically stationary. If chess represented war, the queen, knights, and rooks would be the armies and the pawns the terrain. So the way you orient your pawns at the beginning, dictates so much of how the rest of the game is played. And once they are established, they will remain for the rest of the game relatively immobile. The play happens around them.
The other week, I was angry at Sarah. Sarah is my wife. She has brown curly hair, prominent teeth, and hates disappointing people. She hates it so much, that when I’m upset with her, she can hardly speak to me. I was angry because she had made a joke about my poor spelling. It is something we have joked about before. There’s just something funny about a writer who can’t spell. So it was probably my own insecurities at finding a job and making a living that set off my mood towards her. But once it started, it was hard to shake.
I didn’t want to be angry at her. And if she asked, I would tell her I was fine, just in a funk. And that would have been true. It is just that sometimes emotions are hard to shake. We like to tell ourselves we’re in control, that we can choose to be happy. But that’s not always true.
So how much control do we have?
All of that control we talk about is normally at the beginning of the emotion-generative process, like in chess. At the beginning of a game we build the landscape, and at that point we have a lot of control over how things will play out. But soon things become immobile. Emotions stick. We’re pinned down. And at this point, there’s no going back to reset the stage.
That is often what we mean when we say we have control. We are saying that you could have arranged your pawns differently, which is always true. And if you want to win more games, careful consideration of how you organize your pawns is helpful. But in the middle of the game, to say you have control, somehow feels simplistic, even offensive. It’s like reminding me that I had control at the beginning and botched it. Sure it’s true, but reminding me doesn’t change the situation.
In 2001 James Gross, a professor of psychology at Stanford published an article exploring the difference between two scenarios of emotional control. Scenario one comes early in the emotion-generative process. It consists primarily of appraising the situation and choosing how to respond. It is at the beginning of the game. It’s an early-on strategy. Humans are pretty good at this sort of regulation. We have a lot of control at the beginning.
The second scenario comes at the end of the game. Gross calls it Suppression. It involves “inhibiting the outward signs of emotion.” It happens once we already feel a certain way. This scenario is much less mobile than the first. It’s a late-game strategy. The players are pinned down and all you can do is a sort of triage. According to Gross, suppression is reactive and while it does restrict some negative behaviors, it only amplifies the negative experience of the emotion. So the harder you fight, the worse you feel.
Chess has one clear advantage. Check-mate. The game ends and you can start again. And that is sometimes true for our emotions. My father has told me on several occasions that the worst marriage advice he ever received was to never go to bed angry. Sleep functions as a reset for our brains. And if it goes well, we can wake with a new set of pawns. No need to stay up all night trying not to be angry. That’s a late-game strategy and you can’t do much about it. It’s normally best to just start at the beginning.
But sometimes even after a good night’s sleep we can’t shake our emotions. Sometimes for some people the game never seems to end. Sometimes we remain stuck at the end where “when we win it’s with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small.” That line is from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke and to me encapsulates the futility of our end game attempts to change our emotions.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey is a novel (and film) about an insane asylum. There’s this scene where the protagonist Mac, a man who faked insanity to avoid going to jail, and his friend Chief are punished with electroconvulsive therapy. The scene is graphic and the treatment is used punitively. The book came out in 1962 and caused widespread disapproval of electroconvulsive therapy. Today, a lot of people think it’s a thing of the past. I did. I thought it was an outdated treatment used back before psychologists knew any better. But it’s not. It’s still used today, often.
Of course today, doctors use muscle relaxants to help stop the violent convulsions we all imagine. But what’s more amazing is that it often works. Electroconvulsive therapy works for several mental issues. Most commonly it is used in severely depressed patients. These are people who are stuck in an end of the game scenario and the only way they can finally reset is a seizure.
So how does electroconvulsive therapy work? We don’t know. There are theories of course, but no one really understands it. The electricity causes a seizure in the brain, and somehow surprises the brain into resetting itself. It’s like restoring your phone to factory default. Sometimes some memory is lost, but often the problem goes away, at least for a while.
If our brain is like a chess board, it develops ruts, paths, channels that both enable and restrict it. When those ruts get too deep, when the game progresses far enough, we can’t do anything unless it is surprised and resets back into an early game scenario. But the thing is, it’s very hard to surprise ourselves. Perhaps this explains a curious pattern in human relations. Early on in a relationship, if you ask someone what they think is the most important attribute in a partner they are mostly likely going to say honesty. That is until that relationship gets more serious. Then, for whatever reason, people begin to rate humor as the most important attribute.
I still believe these statistics may be generally false, that once you are deeply in a relationship honesty becomes assumed and so loses some apparent value. But honesty, if practiced, quickly becomes unsurprising, predictable—and for that we find much peace and comfort. But humor, though it may be familiar remains forever surprising. It exists on borders and bridges from one place to another. Things that are funny—jokes, puns, embarrassing moments—always incorporate a double speak, a paradox. Humor is a destructive rhetoric that deconstructs, resets, and undoes. It is wonderfully violent in this way, like a seizure, and resets our brains, moods, and heals our misperceptions.
It is often this way with me, when I am struggling to overcome a mood—failing more the harder I try. And then, at the unexpected coming of a friend, a comment from my wife, or by mere accident as I trip over a curb, I am surprised into happiness again. This is how we win when we are stuck at the end of the game—not by a lonely act of will, but by virtue of surprise.
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