Still Climbing, Still Falling – The Duality of Life

The Duality of Life

by Barb Casper
My roots as a recreational therapist have taught me play can be an incredibly valuable tool for learning and personal growth. I am sure that most of you are familiar with the game, Chutes and Ladders.
Chutes and Ladders board game

Chutes and Ladders is regarded today as a worldwide classic.The American version of the game, was released by Milton Bradley in 1943. Played on a 10×10 board, players advance their pieces according to a spinner rather than a die. The theme of the board design is playground equipment, showing children climbing ladders and descending chutes. The artwork on the Chutes and Ladders game board teaches morality lessons: squares on the bottom of the ladders show a child doing a good or sensible deed, at the top of the ladder there is an image of the child enjoying the reward; squares at the top of the chutes show children engaging in mischievous or foolish behavior, on the bottom of the chute the image shows the children suffering the consequences.2

Snakes and Ladders, the forerunner to Chutes and Ladders, originated in ancient India as Moksha Patam, and was brought to the UK in the 1890s. It is played on a game board with numbered squares. A number of “ladders” and “snakes” were pictured on the board, each connecting two specific board squares. The object of the game was to navigate one’s game piece, according to die rolls, from the start (bottom square) to the finish (top square), helped by climbing ladders but hindered by falling down snakes.

Snakes and Ladders had its roots in morality lessons, on which a player’s progression up the board represented a life journey complicated by virtues (ladders) and vices (snakes). It was also associated with traditional Hindu philosophy contrasting karma and kama, or destiny and desire.

The top of the game board featured gods, angels, and majestic beings, while the rest of the board was covered with pictures of animals, flowers and people. The ladders represented virtues such as generosity, faith, and humility, while the snakes represented vices such as lust, anger, murder, and theft. The morality lesson of the game was that a person can attain liberation (Moksha) through doing good, whereas by doing evil one will be reborn as lower forms of life. The number of ladders was less than the number of snakes as a reminder that a path of good is much more difficult to tread than a path of sins. Presumably, reaching the last square (number 100) represented the attainment of Moksha (spiritual liberation).3

A recent personal experience reminded me of the life lessons inherent in both of these board games. If you’ve ever played Chutes and Ladders or Snakes and Ladders, you know how it feels to make progress towards the finish, only to land on a chute that takes you back to the start. Most of us do not relish the thought of finding ourselves ‘back on square one’ so we strive feverishly to attain our goals and finish the game (move forward in life).

I was in Florida on vacation last month and decided to play pickle ball with my family. While practicing and beginning to learn the intricacies of the sport, I had a nasty fall. I landed on my left side and then my head smashed into the court. The impact of my head meeting the concrete broke my glasses at the hinge while the eyeglass frame sliced my forehead open above my eyebrow. I ended up spending over 7 hours in ER waiting to get a cat scan and x-ray to rule out a brain bleed, concussion, and broken ribs. When all was said and done, I was fortunate to only end up with 7 stitches above my eye, a very nasty shiner, and bruised ribs.

Such is life! There are times when we set out to try out something new and end up badly bruised, broken, and shaken. That day, it was as if the universe decided to throw me a curve ball and I whiffed landing flat on my face. Still, I was looking forward to playing the game and I envisioned the paddle connecting with the ball prior to the moment of impact. Such is the duality of life – a whiff (failure to connect despite our best efforts) versus connection (a volley, a succession of perfect shots rifled back and forth with little time to react). A fault (something that impairs or detracts from physical perfection; a mistake or error; a dead ball, the end of the perfect volley).

Let’s face it, life can suck sometimes. The pitfalls of reality are we’ve all felt the hurt, the ache, the headache, the dull pain of unfortunate events. Each of us have met the dark side of life. We have all, in one way or another, been uncomfortable and experienced something that didn’t feel so good in the mind and/or the body.

Here is the upside, the other side, the alternative thought; there are two sides to every coin. Every failure exists as the counter of success, every pain counters the great feeling of comfort in the body. Even the rising and setting of the sun daily ensures us that darkness is followed by the light.

Be aware of the duality in your daily life.
Give thanks and be grateful for the bad, because it would not exist without the good.
Accept what is let go what was
Chutes and Ladders – Life Lessons
The phrase ‘back to square one’ originated in the game of Snakes and Ladders, or at least was influenced by it.5Within all games are morals and lessons to be learned. For every ladder you hope to climb in life there is a chute waiting around the corner. And for every chute there is a ladder eagerly awaiting your climb upward.Lessons Learned
As in the Chutes and Ladders game, there were lessons to be learned from my unfortunate pickle ball experience that had many similarities to this game we call LIFE:

  1. I was going after the ball (LIFE) as if I was twenty years old again. We can never go back in time and relive our past. We need to accept who and where we are at any given moment.
  1. Life cannot consist of constant motion. There is a time for stillness and a time to let things lie. Sometimes, we have to slow down and take the time to listen with our heart. It is important to recognize if there anything beyond our reach, letting the ball go is perfectly acceptable at that particular moment. A dead ball can always be picked up and put into play at another time. Rash decisions and attempting to move beyond what are present capabilities are can lead to rash consequences.
  2. If we are not following the natural order of life or ignoring who and where we are in life, we may find a chute along our path. It is only when we are experiencing loss, hurt, pain, suffering, and finding ourselves spiraling downward in life, when we are fully able to recognize or remember what is means to be empathic towards ourselves and others. Only then can we fully accept and lose the “why me” mentality that accompanies loss and suffering.
  3. Facing difficulties allow us to move forward, give thanks for all the blessings we have been given, accept ourselves, and learn the importance of reaching out to others who may also be in need.
  4. When we are feeling defeated in life and it seems as if we are ‘starting from square one’, it is important we get up, brush ourselves off,  and proceed along life’s path. Yes, the path is often difficult and an uphill climb! The ladders that are presented to us in life allow us to achieve great heights but it requires us to take one step up one rung at a time.
  5. Finding oneness in life is not about categorizing life into specific compartments of duality such as winning versus losing, succeeding versus failing, equality in contrast with equity, and criticism vs. acceptance. The duality of life colors everything in black and white but it is up to us to paint the colors in between the lines.
  6. Accepting what is and what has been, even if the outcome is not what we desire, allows us to move forward with grace, dignity, and a newly-learned respect for ourselves and for each other. Acceptance releases us from the darkness of blame, guilt, and judgement. A fault (failure in life) shouldn’t be defined negatively, condemned, criticized, or erased from our memories. Brow beating and bashing (pun intended) and bullying others and judging ourselves harshly when “the performance doesn’t measure up to our perceived expectations” will result in some serious hurt and suffering. The consequences of hurt, pain, and suffering can be devastating and long-lived whether the pain is physical or emotional.
  7. Learning from our mistakes and embracing the suffering and pain, rather than pushing it away, teaches us to NOT repeat the same behaviors and responses.

In the end, this game called LIFE goes on to be played again and again. There is no start and no finish but an infinite loop of possibilities and outcomes. The only difference between the reality of life and the board games people play is in LIFE not much is left to luck, chance or the spin of the wheel or roll of the dice.

Instead, each of us has been given the freedom to choose how we approach life and how we handle its myriad of outcomes. It’s important we choose wisely and our choices are heart-felt.

1 “Chutes and Ladders – Snakes and Ladders”.
2 Bell, R.C. (1983). “Snakes and Ladders”. The Boardgame Book. Exeter Books. pp. 134–135. ISBN 0-671-06030-9.
3 Slesin, Suzanne. At 50, Still Climbing, Still Sliding The New York Times, 15 July 1993
4 A Lesson from the Tao Te Ching on the Duality of Life
5 “Back to square one”, The Phrase Finder, Gary Martin.
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