Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The liberating power of refusal

When I was in my very early teens, my family got together with the family of one of my mother’s old friends from her school days for a week long summer visit. They had a girl almost exactly my age, and we had been congenial playmates on numerous visits in the past. Early on the first day of this particular visit, I was rudely introduced to the game of “jinx,” a childish sort of game in which when two people accidently say the same thing at the same time, the person who noticed first would say “jinx” and start counting rapidly out loud until the other person said “stop.” The other person was then obliged to remain completely speechless for a number of minutes equal to the number the person who said “jinx” made it to before the other person said “stop.” I had never played the game before, and she made it to 45 before, out of frustration and confusion, I yelled at her to stop. She then explained the rules and informed me that I would have to remain silent for 45 minutes. I was also informed that speaking before the time was up would automatically add 10 minutes to my sentence. From that point on, she and the other kids were committed to doing what they could to get me to speak.

For perhaps 20 minutes, I sat on the couch, brooding in my forced silence. I became increasingly frustrated and angry that I was not allowed to participate in the ongoing conversation and wracked by a deep sense of injustice. I had not known the rules, after all. It was hardly fair that I had to remain quiet for three quarters of an hour. And then, to make things worse, in a moment of careless inattention I spoke, I started to say something, and was immediately rebuked and informed of the additional 10 minute penalty. I remember feeling trapped, helpless, and angry that I let myself get caught in this oppressive web.

But then I had a flash of insight, a potent revelation, even. It was, after all, just a game. And a silly one at that. No one had removed my vocal cords. There was no gun at my head threatening my life should I speak. It was just a game, and my participation was entirely voluntary. I immediately began speaking entire sentences. In fact, I grabbed a book from the shelf next to the couch and began reading aloud in a loud expressive voice. My prisoner added 10 minutes, and another 10, and then another until I had amassed several hours before she left the room in a huff.

How much of our present circumstances are of this form? We continually act in strict accordance to the rules of a game that we never agreed to play, a game that, should we choose, we could simply stop playing. We could at any moment simply walk away—if it were not for the fact that there are real guns at our heads. . .