Backgammon (Bear Off)


While both backgammon and chess are war-games, the former is way older [3000 B.C. vs. 600 A.D.] and–in Geneva Conventions terms–way more soldier-friendly. In chess you can sacrifice all your troops, except the King, in the name of victory; whereas in backgammon you cannot win until you rescue all your troops from their captivity [on the Bar], and bear off every last one of them to safety.

Without getting too name-droppy about it, I was lucky enough to meet [separately] with two of Freud’s analysands [his patients], who went on to become noted psychoanalysts [both now dead–this was in the 70s]; and one of them [can’t remember which] told me that Freud preferred the metaphor of backgammon to chess, for the Game of Life. As we slog through the vicissitudes [Freud’s oh-so-prissy translator, Lytton Strachey, chose this term, instead of ups & downs, or snakes & ladders, or swings & roundabouts] of life, we get stuck in some boggy patches. [If A.A. Milne had been Freud’s translator, more people would have gotten the benefit of the useful bits.] These have to do with tricky dilemmas discussed in previous posts [such as “To be smothered with attention, or to be left utterly alone?” and “To be a Goody-Two-Shoes, or to be a Black Sheep?”]. In our earliest struggles, grown-ups represent the opposing side [the Giants, Freud said, because these battles took place When We Were Very Young, therefore, small].

In each of these skirmishes, we lose a few soldiers; but we carry on with our remaining troops, to face the next dust-up. For some people, these encounters are not so bad, and only a few soldiers are lost. For others, it’s a hard-knocks life; and the Bar is crowded with their captive troops. Freud thought of troop strength as the Vital Force [or psychic energy] needed to confront life’s challenges. Let us think of it as blood to the hippocampus, shall we? Not enough of it, and the hippocampus shrivels up, leaving us unable to remember important stuff or to problem-solve. We lose traction. We are in danger of being gammoned or even backgammoned [losing the Game of Life very badly].

So we need to make like the Red Cross [Crescent, whatever], and negotiate for the release of these PoWs. In backgammon, it’s a roll of the dice–if a useful number comes up, a soldier can be liberated and head for home. In real life, we need to go back–to revisit the hard-knock event–and see if we can reframe it in such a way that we get the captive soldier back. The most current treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder encourages the individual to recollect the traumatic event: to write about it, or to talk about it into a taperecorder and listen to it repeatedly, until it loses its power to arouse the amygdala. Then the “wolf-work” can begin. “What got up your nose, about the event?” “Are you bummed because you lost a buddy, or do you blame yourself for his/her loss?”

As in all real wars, we may never recover all the fallen or captive soldiers, but it is vitally important that we try. Those who say that we should simply “Move on,” from traumatic events, without any attempt to understand what really happened–what we were thinking, what got up our nose–are ignoring human nature and brain physiology. What we have not acknowledged and understood, we are likely to act out–against ourselves and others. Before we can truly move on, we need to look back.

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Filed under Freud meant..., gets right up my nose, limbic system, post-traumatic stress

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