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PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys

Posts from — July 2012

Red Light, Green Light

Red Light, Green Light

When I was a kid growing up in New York, we played a lot of games outside—on the sidewalk or in the vacant lot on the corner: stick ball, roller skating, stoop ball—such was the world of childhood long before the advent of video games, cable television, and the Internet. One favorite game was “Red Light, Green Light,” which involved sneaking up on someone designated as “it” while he had his back turned (having declared “Green light!”), then freezing in the seconds you had before he spun around shouting “Red light!” If he caught you moving, you were out of the game. But if he didn’t catch you, if you were skillful enough to anticipate the crucial moment, then he had to turn his back and say “Green light!” once more, whereupon the survivors resumed their stealthy advance. If you managed to tag him before he could catch you in the act, then you got to be “it,” and so the game went.

Somewhere between the autumn lit days of childhood and the responsibilities that come with being an adult, many of us seem to have acquired “red light” beliefs—also “green light” ones, by which I mean beliefs that stop us in our tracks or prompt us to dare next steps, respectively. The “red light” beliefs are often about love, about getting close to someone, or about possessing wealth, or “acceptable” degrees of outspokenness, and so on. Whatever the context, invariably these red-light beliefs keep us endlessly advancing at the same time that they hold us back, since as long as we give ourselves to such beliefs, it makes perfect sense not to press on but to retreat, disengage, be less than we would be if we adopted the relevant “green light” belief instead.

The catch is that giving up a “red light” belief requires being willing to face down whatever the belief is designed to protect us from—because it’s only at the point that our participation in the game of life is wholehearted and unconditional that it becomes a creative force. We got to experience something of this as kids—lurching ahead those last few feet always took a leap of faith—that you wouldn’t be caught at the last second and disqualified—and the thrill of that daring move came from suddenly caring more about the prize than the risk. That child’s game taught us courage and faith and boldness and a great deal more that can serve us now, in adult life. It comes down to a matter of where we put our attention.

Each of us has to answer certain fundamental questions about his or her life. Did I come here to hold back, to live halfway, to play it safe? What good thing might happen if I take a chance on what’s best in me? In the end, whether our experience is informed by “red lights” or “green” identifications is anything but childish. I often remind myself that “what we want wants something of us.” Really, it wants everything, our very being. The leap of faith—not in something “out there” but simply in all that is good and courageous and true and beautiful in oneself—determines the game, and in any case, the choice cannot be avoided. To win, one must be willing to lose. To have, we have to let go. Back then, playing games on the sidewalk, the urgency—to stay in the game, to advance to the next safe station, to keep from getting caught—all of it was part of the thrill. And for those who did get caught, there were other games, other days for which they would be that much more prepared, having practiced the best in them. Surely now, in our adult life, losing can be a chapter rather than the whole story. And if we practice what’s best in us and for whatever reason, things don’t go the way we want, does what we lose even compare to what we gain by being willing to play?

July 4, 2012   Comments Off on Red Light, Green Light