If you take the long view, there wasn’t much difference between the dice and the cards we replaced them with. You had a one-in-thirty-six chance of rolling a twelve, and you had a one-in-thirty-six chance of drawing a queen. Potato, potato. But if you took the short view, the game flopped. We ruined Settlers of Catan that night, which isn’t all that different from how I’ve ruined everything else these past few years.
Settlers of Catan revolves around a pair of dice. Three or four players compete to build the best civilization by rolling dice that generate resource cards that plant settlements that sprout into cities that flourish into kingdoms. Roll, collect, grow. Turn after turn, everything depends on the dice. But sometimes the dice’s probability doesn’t matter. 11s get rolled again and again while 8s fail to appear, and as your game stalls, some schmuck who’s never played before builds city after city just because probability decided to skip town and make this game an outlier. This happens to everyone, sooner or later, and everyone hates it. After one frustrating evening, my friends and I cobbled two decks of cards into—not a replacement for chance, but a restraint on it. We whittled the decks down to thirty-six cards: one 2, two 3s, three 4s, and so on, with jacks and queens posing as 11s and 12s. If you took the long view, each number had the same likelihood of showing up as it had with dice. The same odds, but mandated.
Here’s where our modification flopped: as soon as you drew a 12, you knew that number wasn’t coming back until the deck ran out and the cards reshuffled. As soon as the fifth 6 appeared, that part of the map dried up and your settlement might as well be next to a desert. The chance of abundance became the certainty of scarcity. Forget civilization-building; Settlers of Catan turned into a game of resource extraction. We clear-cut forests and strip mined mountains, exhausted the soil and consumed quarries, racing to build as much as we could before we devoured the land. Nothing had changed except how things felt, which was everything.
That’s more or less how I’ve looked at life the last few years. Not as controlled probability, but just in a way that doesn’t change anything except how I feel about things. I assume peace, creation, and common decency as the status quo, and I see conflict, destruction, and greed as egregious assaults on the normal way of things. How could Michael Flynn sell out our country? Who would start a war like the twenty-five global conflicts raging right now, from the Syrian civil war to Boko Haram to the war in Yemen? It’s wrong. Unnatural and abhorrent. And yet more political scandals pop up each week, and whatever happened about the Panama Papers? Sea life keeps dying, temperatures keep rising, and corruption abounds. The monster from the Grapes of Wrath laid eggs and ate the world.
Outrage fatigue has become popular these last few years, like the fashionable suicides that knocked off so many of the Romantic poets. As defined by pop psychology, outrage fatigue means “a specific form of learned helplessness. When people are subjected to terrible things over which they have no control, they give up trying—even when they eventually face challenges that they can control. Learned helplessness leads to depression.” Neither the outrage nor the fatigue change anything. No stats tremble when I feel furious. No one stops a war because I feel hurt when I find out that Yemen’s fight between a Saudi-led coalition and Iranian-backed rebels has displaced two million people and rendered another 20.2 million in need of assistance. What good does outrage do? It can motivate, but it usually doesn’t. It can inform, but the most outraged people I’ve met usually fall short of a full perspective on things.
I’m done with cards. I’m going back to dice. Tragedy is normal, and selfishness is the way of things. I suppose some people would call this cynicism, but terms like cynic and optimist and pessimist seem less like helpful categorization and more like an easy way to discredit whole swaths of ideas that don’t line up with yours. And the bigger problem: writing this off as jadedness is the same flaw behind outrage—insisting the world isn’t how it is. Name a grand institution, let’s say your church, or the Susan G. Komen foundation, or all those chummy years with your group of high school friends. Look close enough and you’ll see cracks. It’s fracturing right now, whatever it is, right in front of you. The floorboards have rotted for decades. The wiring was never up to code, and no one wants to fix the place up unless they get paid, preferably at rates that might as well count as extortion. Everything works this way. It’s normal, which doesn’t justify it—that’s not what I mean at all. It’s just not worth getting outraged about.
When I look at life this way, it is worth getting excited about the aberrations. About the things I took as normal before, and therefore unremarkable—things like education and peaceful elections. It’s like putting white paint on a black canvas. Nothing changes in the long view; from across the room, it looks like any other white surface. I still read the news, go about my day, and get mad about traffic. My work and hobbies and friendships have the same impact on the world, which is minimal. Nothing changes, not really, but in the short view, when you walk up close, you can see paint.
I’m happier. I smell the flowers. I see trees of green and red roses, too. Congress passed a bipartisan prison reform bill last month that encourages rehabilitation, eases mandatory minimum sentences, and reduces the likelihood of repeat offenses. Midterm voters in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah approved measures to eliminate gerrymandering. In 2018, for the first time in recorded history, the majority of humanity is no longer poor or vulnerable to falling into poverty. These are not natural continuations of a status quo. In a world of selfishness or entropy or sin nature or whatever you want to call it, these things are exceptional, just like inner-city teachers who take underpaid jobs, social workers who fight burnout, Meals on Wheels, national parks, and libraries. All those things have their problems, sure, but that’s the way of things. Their successes are more interesting.
Positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement, so maybe reporting about selflessness and talking about improvement will inspire more decency, like an inverse of copycat crime. But this isn’t about changing the world. In the long view, my feelings about resource cards won’t affect whether I win or lose Settlers of Catan, or whether we all lose spectacularly in a few decades. This is about getting my hands on some dice before fatigue sets in.
When I don’t expect anything from the world, when I don’t take progress for granted, I notice not-at-all-unremarkable things happening all around me. It’s a fuller perspective, to be sure, and maybe an inspiring one. At the very least, it lets me get excited about trying to build a better civilization.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. Since hitchhiking, he’s found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He builds websites as the director of Branded Look LLC. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.