Norwegian chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen gave an interview in 2011—when he was just 21—in which he dropped a bit of chess wisdom that I’ve come to think about in other contexts ever since. It falls into the category of what my friend Josh calls “forever knowledge” about life. Asked whether he considered himself a tactician or a strategist, Carlsen said neither. “I’d call myself an optimist!” he responded. “In actual fact, I don’t have any clear preferences in chess. I do what I think circumstances require of me—I attack, defend, or go into the endgame. Having preferences means having weaknesses.”
Leave aside the game of chess. Having preferences means having weaknesses. This has never felt truer to me than over the past few days as I’ve been wandering around the labyrinthine passages of the Old City of Jerusalem, a tiny parcel of land divided between Muslims, Christians, and Jews (and Armenians, which for some reason, wasn’t immediately apparent to me). Within this tiny city, these religious factions contest minuscule parcels of land that over the millennia have led to pain and misery that boggle the mind. I do not propose to solve the Israeli-Palestine conflict. But I do think the world would be a vastly safer place—and maybe a happier one, too—if more of us learned to see beyond our biases, our preferences, and became optimists capable of letting go.
While it’s clearly a good thing for us to question our own mental reflexes and put ourselves in the other fellow’s shoes more often, I don’t think this metaphor is sturdy enough to travel far beyond the original context of chess strategy. “Doing what circumstances require” in a chess match is in service to the ultimate goal of winning the match. “Doing what circumstances require” in the context of life in general begs the question of what life is all about. How do you “win” the game of life? By racking up titles and trophies, or by good sportsmanship and honest effort? Is it all about what you achieve, or all about how you play the game?
Within the ultimate context of life’s meaning, “preferences = weaknesses” is an ascetic mentality which values invulnerable serenity at the cost of human feeling, which, come to think of it, is just another way of believing in the supernatural. Love, to name the most obvious example, is a weakness in the sense that it makes you vulnerable. Your well-being is now invested in the health and happiness of others, which exponentially multiplies the number of dangerous circumstances over which you have no control. And yet, other than the bitter narrator of Simon & Garfunkel’s song “I Am a Rock,” who would consider that a trade worth making? Not to mention that what love takes away in terms of paranoid security, it amply reimburses in terms of motivation, determination and pleasure. Turning oneself to stone for the sake of invulnerability is a cure worse than the disease.
The attraction here lies in the idea that by removing emotions, passions, and desires from the equation, we can see the circumstances with perfect clarity, at which point the most rational, i.e. “true,” option will practically choose itself. But this is just another of the many ways we attempt to hand the burden of our agency off to someone or something else, whether an authority figure or a formula. No matter how dispassionately you may survey the available options when faced with a choice, to choose between them means to value one more than the others, and valuing has no meaning independent of emotions, passions, and desires. As a Zen Buddhist might quip, you’re still preferring to have no preferences. All the facts in the world can’t tell you what to want. All the is’s in the world can’t add up to an ought. You still have to choose, from the incomplete perspective of a partial, subjective consciousness invested in the world, and accept the consequences.
Eventually, we’ll all succumb to our various weaknesses, whether mental, physical, or even spiritual, and be overcome by life. If Heraclitus and the panta rheists are correct that life is constant flux, comparable to an endless river, there will come a time when we can no longer keep up with the onrushing waters, or no longer even see the point. Perhaps then it’s not about trying to find a strategy for staying waterproof and buoyant indefinitely, but about consciously choosing which of our “weaknesses” are worth putting down roots for, even if our eventual uprooting sees us hopelessly swept away by the current.