back in the box

Back In the Box

I recently finished reading Why Zebras Dont Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky. It’s an illuminating and fairly technical book covering the multitude of ways that chronic stress slowly debilitates and eventually kills you and what to do about it.

I took a lot of notes throughout the book on things like the impact of exercise on stress hormone levels – Put a rat under stress and allow him to run freely on a wheel and his glucocorticoid levels go down, for example. Take the same rat, though, and force him to do the same amount of exercise and his glucorticoid levels rise even higher.

All fascinating stuff, but one that I keep flipping back to is a footnote that Dr. Sapolsky included following a chapter on people with “Type A” tendencies and the resulting effects of their chronically activated stress responses.

“I listened to this sermon, called Back in the Box, by the Reverend John Ortberg. It concerns an incident from his youth. His grandmother, saintly, kind, nurturant, also happened to be a viciously competitive and skillful monopoly player, and his summer visits to her were littered with his defeats at the game.

He described one year where he practiced like mad, honed his Machiavellian instinct, developed a ruthless jugular-gripping style and finally mopped up the board with her. After which, his grandmother rose and calmly put the pieces away.

“You know,” she said offhandedly, “this is a great game, but when it is all over with, the pieces just go back in the box.”

Amass your property, your hotels… [the sermon takes off from there]… your wealth, your accomplishments, your awards, your whatevers and eventually it will all be over and the pieces will go back in the box. And all you are left with is how you lived your life.

I listened to this tape while racing to beat red lights on my way to a 5:00 a.m. commuter train, Powerbook ready so as not to miss a moment of work on the train, eating breakfast one-handed while driving, using the time to listen to this sermon on tape as research for this chapter. And this sermon, whose trajectory was obvious from the first sentence and was filled with Jesus and other things I do not subscribe to, reduced me to tears.”

This made me think of my own grandmother. She’s not into monopoly but she’s a hell of a dominos player. And I thought of one the last things she said to me when I visited her and my grandfather before leaving the country again.

“Hey kid, take it easy on yourself. And come back.”

Look around you. Look at all the pieces you’re accumulating and take them away for a minute to see what will remain. All you are left with is how you’ve lived: how you’ve played the game and the people you’ve been playing it with.

Are you happy with it?

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