Friday, August 9, 2013


One of the people who taught me how to play bridge was blind, not just legally blind, but totally blind.  We played with a braille deck.  The cards were fairly heavy plastic but otherwise looked normal, except that they had the braille bumps in one corner that only he knew how to read.  Whoever was dummy had to announce the cards in the dummy hand, and then we would just state what card we were playing.  He had to keep all of the cards straight, those that had been played as well as those that had not.  Pretty impressive, really.

This was in 1969 when I was 24 years old and had just started teaching psychology at a college in northern Minnesota.  The man’s wife was my boss, the head of the psychology department, and not particularly good looking, which worked OK for her husband, who also taught in the department.  I think they played quite a lot of bridge, first because he was blocked out from a lot of other activities common to sighted persons and second because the winters in northern Minnesota are brutal and last about six months each year.

I don’t know if my blind colleague was a particularly good bridge player, as I was just learning and in no position to judge anyone else’s skill level.  He and his wife did manage to teach me the rules of the game as well as some rudimentary bidding and playing strategies.  But along the way I developed other friendships and interests and stopped playing with them after a few months.  I also had some personal issues with the blind man’s wife, so continuing to play with them would have been awkward in any case.

Although I took bridge up again a few years later during my third year of law school, I never did get particularly good at it.  The game did teach me one fundamental thing, though.  The hand that you’re dealt may include great cards or it may be abysmal.  It may look exciting or it may look dull.  And if the latter, it does no good to complain about it.  Everyone knows that the deal was random and that you shouldn’t take it personally.  It was just the luck of the draw.  More importantly, each hand has a role to play and your job is to play that hand to the very best of your ability.  The poorest, dullest hand might just offer that one combination or play that will defeat the opponents’ contract.

At this point you may be thinking that I am going to say that life is like a hand of cards.  We each get dealt a hand.  Each hand is in a sense equally worthy, and it is our responsibility to play that hand to the best of our ability.  Blah, blah, blah . . . . But that’s not quite right, is it?  It’s true that we each get dealt a hand (a life circumstance, that is) and a random one at that.  Or at least it’s not one of our choosing.  But it’s not true that each hand has a worthy or important role to play or is fun or exciting.  Some hands seem to get all the cards; others just suck; most are somewhere in the middle--simply to be played out by following the rules.  And then the hand is over.  And when it’s over, it’s over.  It’s not fair, really, but then fairness has nothing to do with it.  So, the moral is:  Don’t worry so much over whether you win or lose.  Just do your best because to do so is rewarding in and of itself, and enjoy the play of the hand.

© 2013 John M. Phillips


  1. Good insights, John.
    It's been years since I've played bridge. I was just "ok" with the game, but never really good at it. The people I played with took the game so seriously that I never really enjoyed it. (Lots of gossiping went on as well and this always made me feel quite uncomfortable.)

    I eventually stopped playing. Occasionally I enjoy a game of canasta, but that's about the extent of my card playing. Oh yes, I hate getting a bad hand, but you are so right in that one can still come out being rewarded and feeling good about one's efforts by a thoughtful and well played hand. Ha! This does sound quite a lot like something that might follow the statement, "Life is like," doesn't it?

  2. Hi, Gerrie.
    Originally, I had a different end to this post, making a comment about how we have a responsibility to play the hand to the best of our ability, etc. But I have trouble with the idea of personal responsibility (a subject for another post) and decided to change it a bit. Perhaps I should expand my thoughts a little more around the idea that when the hand is over the cards are collected and no one is keeping score. So we just need to find joy in the playing of the hand.

  3. It's a good parallel in many ways...if the generations or "hands" before us did not affect what our lot then is at our birth. You see it all the time, people born into families were poor health choices and lifestyle choices have dire consequences on their children...drug addicted mothers, one parent families. But even these children can be Ben Carson.
    Or you see children born into extreme wealth and abundance and they squander their inheritance away and live miserable lives. I think if our parents and even those of many generations before are wise and thoughtful and pass on good genetic components the opportunity is certainly there to play a great "game" in life.
    I guess what card games don't have is the influence available to people...some have mentors and for those that believe in God, a sense of faith and trust that there is something bigger that will make life come out right in the end, despite the sand traps and stumbling blocks we all meet. And how we choose to deal with those has a large part in what kind of life we are just cards.

  4. Hi, Lisa,

    As individuals we don't have a choice over "the hand that we are dealt," in terms, for example, of our genetic makeup or the economic advantages or disadvantages of the families we were born into. Although I would like to say that, while we didn't control the hand that we were dealt, we do have control over how we play that hand. Unfortunately, it's just not as simple as that. As I state in my Points of Belief post, I do not believe that we have any freedom of choice, that is, free will, generally. Rather, our actions--all of them--are governed strictly by the laws of physics. And that simply doesn't leave any room for personal choice. So how can I reconcile that with the idea of personal responsibility? All I can say at this point is that I am working on the resolution of that apparent conflict. More to follow, hopefully.


  5. My children didn't have a choice about being here, but I did have choices as their Mom. I made every effort to be healthy and avoid anything that could harm them in utero. I certainly wasn't a "perfect" parent, but I did try to provide a safe childhood and the advantages to reach a healthy adulthood. I am sure that was true for your children. So I guess that is just is the circumstances they were fortunate enough, by the luck of the draw, to have and that this is based on the law of physics? So my personal choice only affect them as individual for the survival of the fittest concept? But aren't those choices based on faith that living this way matters, otherwise wouldn't we all live lives unconcerned about the outcome of others and their future?

    1. Lisa,

      I think you and I would agree that we do not have choice as to our genetic makeup, our in utero health, or the parental attitudes and socio-economic level of the family we are born into--in short, the hand that we are dealt. My feeling is that this is a bit of a problem for Christians, as there is a real fairness issue here: One child is born into an upper middle class family, with excellent health and strong natural intelligence. Another is born to an impoverished, drug-addicted, single parent and is not blessed with strong intelligence.

      But that aside, where we most strongly disagree is as to whether a child has any real control--that is, choice--over what he makes of that "hand." I know that I am in a distinct minority in believing that we do not have any choice. I sometimes feel like I am a voice crying in the wilderness. But, believe it or not, I am not alone in this view. And, yes, everything does ultimately come down to physics. I tried to cover this in my post on Choice, but I know that it is something of a tough read, particularly for someone whose perspective is so different from what I am expressing. I don't think we are going to have a meeting of the minds on this one.

      One quick response to your last comment: I believe (and I think most socio-biologists agree) that evolution has led us to be concerned for the welfare of others.