It was a long time ago – the 1960s – when I read the book “Games People Play” by Eric Berne and heard about “Ain’t It Awful.” This was one of the earlier pop psychology books that was both easy to read and, at the same time, illuminated many of the patterns that we all follow in our daily lives. These patterns were called “games” because indeed, they seemed to be group activities defined by specific, if unwritten, rules, and serving some purpose, even if not consciously understood.
Many people clearly recognized themselves in these descriptions, and I was certainly one. One game that was very recognizable and quite pervasive was called “Ain’t It Awful”. The classic example of this is where a bunch of employees sit around the water cooler or having a beer after work, and bitch about how screwed up the company is, how all the managers are clueless, how so many co-workers (none of whom are present) are morons, lazy, or corrupt, and so on. This game can go on indefinitely, generally until it is time to return to the cube or go home.
Although a “game”, this is not one with a goal, nor one where there is a finish with a winner and loser. It is simply a ritual that serves the moment, and indeed, no one walks away feeling like the loser. On the contrary, this game allows the participants to feel some level of bonding around their shared experience of misery and frustration. It may even allow participants to express anger in a way not tolerated in the normal work environment and so serve some useful purpose of briefly relieving tension.
Ultimately, however, it accomplishes nothing and leads to no improvement in the situation which is the context for the complaining. The marvelous poet, Mary Oliver, said, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.”
It has been described it this way: “People playing this game get to feel Right and Righteous, a step above those being ‘awfulized’.” “There is the drama and attention that comes to the one who begins the game or who can ‘one-up’ the previous player.”
In short, it is a kind of drug that makes us feel better in the moment but does nothing to make our lives better in the long term.
Even worse, it has a long-term corrosive effect – where the addicts of the game come to believe that the scenario they spend their time discussing is the true reality and beyond possibility of redemption.
The media today has become dominated by “Ain’t It Awful.” So has much of our political process and discourse, and it is irrelevant which came first. They are feeding on each other, all for immediate gratification and with no attention on problem solving or working toward a resolution of the things about which they complain.
The media? It sells papers and gets viewers, listeners, and blog traffic. It pays the bills and keeps the lights on. The right wing has made a full-blown career out of this for a decade or more, but the left is in the game too. As with the original book, once the pattern is called to our attention, it is as clear as a 30-foot neon sign. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, etc. are simply playing “Ain’t It Awful” all day long, day after day, and serving up the drug of Right and Righteousness to their audience – all without any hint of responsibility on the part of the listener. No. All the world’s troubles are somebody elses fault.
Bad as that may be, the entire Republican party seems to have joined in the game. The self-styled “Tea Party” crew that swept on the scene a few years ago actually has nothing more to offer than strident rants about how awful everything is. It is particularly pointless to mention that their party was in control of the Congress and the Executive branch for most of the 8 years preceding their epiphany that the country was on the short road to ruin. Discussion with these people, from their presumptive nominee down, is only possible if you embrace the complete awfulness of the entire government and most of the changes (formerly called ‘progress’) in this country over the past 200 years.
So lest I be merely another player in a different cell of the “Ain’t It Awful” game, I will suggest that we start immediately focusing attention on those persons and those activities that are not mired in “Ain’t It Awful.” Give support in whatever way possible – time, money, even just casual conversation – to the ways that our complex life and society can be managed and evolved for the better, and to the people who show an ability and commitment to that approach. Do not waste time on people who are trapped in “Ain’t It Awful” and who don’t even realize it.
One of the classic recommendations to people who have come to realize that they have been drawn in to these “Ain’t It Awful” games is simply to stop playing. Refuse to play. Just say, “this does not serve me or the larger world” and walk away. Walk away and find something positive to do. This is not a new idea. As a very old saying put it, “Better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.”