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Homily: The Plus-Sum Game
David L. Baad, Head of School

The following homily on the Virtue of the Month: Preparation was presented in middle and upper school chapel services.

Mathematicians and economists are fond of developing systems. They often classify seemingly different situations into categories to identify better their similar attributes. This exercise allows them to understand how humans might behave in certain environments that on the one hand appear to have nothing in common but in reality hold such common characteristics that they allow us to predict behavior. One such classification is called a zero-sum game.

To quote Wikipedia:

In game theory and economic theory, a zero-sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant's gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participants. For instance, cutting a cake, where taking a larger piece reduces the amount of cake available for others as much as it increases the amount available for that taker, is a zero-sum game if all participants value the cake equally. Someone gets more cake and others get less. The cake is only so big. A typical athletic contest or any other type of competition in which winning is valued equally by both sides would be another example of a zero-sum game. There is a winner, and there is a loser. 

Psychologists tell us that most people have a natural bias towards seeing situations as zero-sum.

In contrast, a non-zero-sum game describes a situation in which the participants' total gains and losses can be less than or more than zero. In our outdoor education program, Mr. Eason and Mr. Felder have classes engage in a game called “Knot my problem”. Knot spelled K-N-O-T like a knot in a rope. In it all players are on the same “team” and asked to each grab the rope with both their hands in a way that creates a heavy criss-crossing of the rope. The idea of the game is that everyone must work together to untangle the rope while keeping a hold of it with both hands and finish by facing each other in a circle. The only way to succeed is teamwork. This is a non-zero sum game because all participants rise and fall together. 

So we can have zero-sum games where there are winners and losers. We have non zero-sum games where everyone rises and falls together. 

As we wonder about this month’s virtue of preparation, I ask you this question, “Is life a zero-sum game?” Are there limited resources, accolades, and rewards out there in this world? Is it true that the more one person gets, the less someone else gets? The more I help someone get ahead, the further behind I will fall. The more resources  I give up or give away, the less I will ultimately have? Is life a big game where we keep score - with money, with prestige, with power? The winners have more of it; the losers have less of it. Most of us want to be winners. And if maybe we have some advantages in life, we sure better not give them away or share them with others.

And maybe that is the way the game of life needs to be played. Because of our fallen nature - our tendency to laziness and taking the easy way - we need the motivation of this competition to push us to creativity, to achievement, to fulfilling our potential. 

This is a hard question. 

Let’s consider the opposite. Maybe life is not a zero-sum game. To use the earlier analogy of the cake, instead maybe through generosity, people can expand the size of our dessert. The more resources we put in, the more there is for everybody. If we all share what we have, our talent, our love, our riches, maybe sacrificing equally as well, each of us will benefit from the other, and we will all be better off. Hmmmm. 

From a strictly economic point of view, humans have been debating this point for centuries. But let’s set economics aside for a minute and think more generally about group dynamics.

All of you are parts of various groups - academic classes, friend groups, teams, arts ensembles, clubs. That is what we do as humans. Most of us are by nature social animals, and we have organized society so that we gather in order to survive, to live, to progress. 

Now place yourself into one of those groups for the moment. Imagine - remember - the best experiences, those in which the group accomplished something great, something worthwhile. There was a harmony in which everyone was their best self, the whole of the outcome was greater than the sum of the group’s parts. What allowed that to happen?

Now imagine the opposite. The group does not work well. Its potential is unfulfilled. Somehow what you hoped would be the outcome of its collective effort falls short.

A good friend with whom I have worked used to say that poorly performing groups often suffer from members who “suck the oxygen out of the room.” In other words, they behave in such a way that their actions suffocate the other members. Their presence sits heavily. They force everyone to expend energy dealing with their negative spirit. Maybe it was that this team member needed to show their dominance by ordering everyone around. Maybe they needed to exert their control by refusing to follow agreed-upon rules. Or maybe even, they needed to make themselves feel good by constantly being critical of others. In all these cases, the troublesome group member sees the activity as a zero-sum game. In order to win, they need to make sure others feel like losers. 

Return though to the positive group. Notice the phrase used - “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” That means the group accomplished more collectively than their individual talents should have allowed. They literally created not a zero-sum game, but a plus-sum game. They expanded the cake, made it bigger.

In this month of Advent preparation, this lesson resonates. In our reading from Thessalonians today, Paul talks of the Lord coming like “a thief in the night.” This year of 2020 has shown us that we never know what may await us tomorrow. But Paul tells us we will be prepared, we will be ready if we are children of the light of God.  Perhaps it might make sense for us to think about how we can make life a plus-sum game so that when life’s obstacles emerge, destroy pieces of our community cake, we have some extra for those who need it. How can we make our communal dessert bigger by engaging in group behaviors that add oxygen to the room - listening rather than talking, lifting up rather than putting down, cooperating rather than opposing.    

The Gospel passage we read from Luke in conjunction with this month’s virtue of preparation is: “Whoever is fully prepared will be like their teacher.” Perhaps what Luke is telling us is that we will be prepared, fully in God’s light, ready to face any challenge when we see our work together as a plus-sum game. That is my prayer for all of us this Advent season.