06 August 2012
My Mah Jongg Metaphor


Right off the bat, I have to tell you that both Syd Arthur, the protagonist in my novel, and I LOVE to play Mah Jongg— the deep friendships that blossom around the table, the sound of the tiles being mixed, the yummy snacks offered along with that all important question: Are we ready to move from salty snacks to sweet? But already, I digress. 

In many ways, Mah Jongg is a game of both explicit and implicit rules. There is a set way to play, of course, but each Mah Jongg group also establishes, over time, its own idiosyncratic culture. What is the bottom line on how much money you can lose? What type of food will be served (there is usually an expectation of at least two salty and two sweet snack options). Will there be wine (I used to play with one group that I enjoyed very much but our weekly games mostly served as an excuse to sit around drinking Chardonnay and chatting, with Mah Jongg tiles thrown in for respectability) or will no alcoholic beverages be served? As the years go by, there are private jokes about certain hands (to my current Mah Jongg group: No NEWS is good NEWS), and of course, the ever-important ongoing sharing about life’s joys and challenges within the parameters that have been set. 

You can learn a lot about people when you are playing in a Mah Jongg group. You can also learn a lot about yourself.

I know it might seem funny to bring Rabbi Hillel into a blog about Mah Jongg, but here goes. The Rebbe said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

So what does this have to do with Mah Jongg? I’ll tell you. I’ve noticed that in many ways, how people play the game of Mah Jongg is how they play the game of life. When someone calls “Mah Jongg” meaning they have won that hand, she must expose her hand on her rack to display the winning combination. The players are to look and make sure her winning combination is “kosher” so to speak (she has the right tiles making up her hand, she didn’t “call” tiles when she was playing a “closed” hand, etc). Typically the other players will expose their tiles on the rack to show what they were playing and what tiles they were waiting for.

So here’s the thing I’ve noticed. Sometimes, instead of looking at the winning combination of the player that won, and letting her show her hand and enjoy her moment of victory (and typically winning a whopping $1.00 in total for her winning combination), the other players will barely give a glance at the winner’s hand and instead expose their tiles and lament on what tile they needed and ask who had the red dragon or the 5 bam that they’ve been waiting forever for? Other times, the losing players will look at their friend’s winning combination and comment on what a beautiful hand that was, before commenting on what they were playing. Still others will simply congratulate the winning player and fork over the quarter with their congratulations without sharing the ins and outs of the combination they were playing. 

I was thinking about how these responses are a metaphor in some ways for how we receive someone's good fortune or news. I think we all respond in different ways, at different times depending on where we are in our lives and in our emotional states. How many times has a friend shared some good news with us, and we “receive” it by jumping in and taking her news and making it about ourselves? For example, a friend who just returned from a vacation in Bar Harbor Maine offers that she had a great time hiking in Acadia National Park and had a wonderful anniversary dinner at a restaurant overlooking the ocean that had the best shrimp she’s ever had.  And we jump right in by telling her about a trip we took to Bar Harbor with the kids four years ago and all that we did on that vacation and how just yesterday we booked a weekend in Nantucket for our anniversary and that we need to buy a new bathing suit for the trip. It reminds me of the response of players at times (myself included) when we want so much to share the hand we were trying to play, that we don’t stop to applaud the person who’s winning hand came in. We make it about ourselves instead of allowing “the winner” to have her moment.

I have a friend who truly taught me about receiving someone fully, seeing and hearing that person fully, and bearing witness to who she is and what she is saying and offering in that moment. Sometimes this friend would offer a big piece of news a week or so after it happened, even though we had shared a conversation just days ago where she hadn't mentioned a thing about it. I remember early on asking her why she hadn’t told me that piece of news sooner and she would matter-of-factly say something like, “When we talked the other day you were telling me you had just signed a contract for your new book. That conversation was celebrating you and your accomplishment; that was my focus when you gave me the gift of sharing your excitement.” 

I see that in a microcosm of a moment when someone “oohs and ahhs” in Mah Jongg about their opponents winning hand and doesn’t feel the need to say something like, “look at my hand. I started with these 2 jokers but I needed a pair of green dragons and two flowers so I couldn’t use them to call and then...” Instead, she graciously receives and celebrates the person who just called “Mah Jongg” and admires her winning hand. 

Of course, in life there is an art in finding balance. A friend tells you about their wonderful trip to Bar Harbor and you listen to her stories and ask questions related to what she is telling you offering her the space to share more and reflect on her experience. Then, pausing in a moment of quietness to see if anything else comes up that she wants to share, you honor that space with silence before jumping in with your own thread of the conversation. Then, perhaps you share that you have just booked a trip to Nantucket and tell her why you are looking forward to it.

It’s like in Mah Jongg. You can stop when someone calls Mah Jongg and take time to look at her winning hand. You can listen to her explain how the hand came together and you can offer your congratulations. You can let her admire the tiles exposed on her rack. Then, you might choose to show everyone the hand you were playing, perhaps you share how you needed the 3 dot and you just couldn’t believe that the tile didn’t come in for you. Then you hand over the quarter to the winner with a smile, and begin mixing the tiles and chatting over the clicking sound they make, as you get ready to build your walls for the next game.

That’s why I love Rabbi Hillel’s quote: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? 

Root for the others in your life and give them the space they deserve. Cheer on yourself and share with others where you are in your life; balance is key. And the time for seeking that balance is now, because if not now, when?

Namaste B’Shalom,



Posted by emfrankel at 10:20 AM | Link
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