A quote from Kurt Vonnegut: “A guy with the gambling sickness loses his shirt every night in a poker game. Somebody tells him that the game is crooked, rigged to send him to the poorhouse. And he says, haggardly, ‘I know, I know. But it is the only game in town.'”
Indeed. Thoreau’s famous remark–“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”–points in the same direction. Except that the desperation is no longer so quiet. Our society, our culture (especially pop culture) persuades us that there is “only one game in town”–the game of consumption, the game of buying and selling, the game of being a consumer, the game of expansive desires, the game of self-centeredness, the game of a false self which pretends to be your real self. It is a wilderness of mirrors in which self-images bounce around seemingly endlessly. As long as we believe there is only this one game in town, we turn the wheel of our desires and we become less and less free even as we speak more and more about being free. We become ultimate losers, but we keep playing because it seems to be the “only game in town.”
Modern society makes one into an addict–we become addicted to the fulfillment of superficial desires. Marketing and advertising is all around us and fills our consciousness and our language and the way we look at the world. We take on the “Andy Warhol sickness”–dwelling within this advertising universe as if it were our home. Look at almost any magazine. Look at TV commercials. The pervasiveness of it all makes it seem like “the only game in town.”
And we keep playing even when we realize, during some moments of semi-lucidity, that there is a deep dissatisfaction within us, that whatever fulfillment we achieve, it is so fragile and so temporary that it vanishes and leaves us feeling empty and in need of another “fix” right away. The modern economy depends on this and exploits this to an incredible degree. We are induced to keep playing because it seems to be “the only game in town.” And if this is the only thing we can see, then such human facts as sickness, old age and death become almost unbearable facts–because they end our participation in “the only game in town” and beyond that there is nothing.
The Romans invented this notion of “bread and circuses”–provide entertainment for the masses to keep them distracted from reflecting on either their personal truth or their social truth. It would be unsettling to the empire if people began to think and reflect on their own deep- seated unease with their situation, if they had to face their own pain. Today the entertainment has been “enhanced” by all kinds of gadgetry. It is now at one’s fingertips wherever one goes. But even the natural beauty and wonder of the world is only there to be exploited as entertainment and diversion. Or if one puts on the Sony Walkman one can shut out the given world and the ego self can dwell within the illusion of its own self-made world. And the whole “raison d’etre” of this condition is that there seems to be only this game in town.
But every major spiritual tradition says there is something else besides this game. Once you get an inkling of this, you can begin the journey to break that addiction; you can begin to see the world and yourself in different terms. You can begin the journey to ultimate freedom, compassion and bliss.