Existential Bingo

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Nietzsche was wrong. God isn’t dead; he’s just in assisted living.

Please don’t think I’m using “assisted living” in any pejorative way. I’ve been joyfully married for 33 years, and if marriage isn’t assisted living, I don’t know what is.

My point is that people in assisted living are as close to God as babies are, and the elders are usually a little better at communicating their spiritual insights to the rest of us.

Several years ago, both of my wife’s parents were in an assisted living facility (which I’ll call Eternity’s Front Porch), and I got an advanced education in existential philosophy from them and their colleagues, especially at game time when they all played Bingo.

First, I received a lesson in the randomness of existence, in the inescapable fact of contingency, in the need to make our own meaning where none inherently exists. The seniors sat at tables in rows with Bingo cards on which were printed letters and numbers also in neat rowsperhaps management’s attempt to imply order and perceivable pattern in the universe. But one elderly woman quickly undercut this vain attempt. After only a few numbers were called, this senior savant began loudly asking, “What’s the point of this? I don’t get the point of it.”

These existential gurus kept up a veritable barrage of questions. The game caller yelled each number three times to overcome both hearing and memory problems. Still, the seekers constantly queried, “What? What? What was the number?” Maybe all of life comes under the letter “N”Negationthe Everlasting No.

Other players helped reveal the temptation of what Jean-Paul Sartre called “inauthentic existence,” the failure to live as a courageous individual despite peer pressure to conform. One woman, if her card didn’t have the called number but she saw nearby neighbors did and were covering it, would imitate them and furtively cover a wrong number on her card. Even more strikingly, if this same woman had the right number on her card but those around her did not, she abandoned right action and would not record her own success. Another woman repeatedly apologized after a number was called: “I don’t have it. I’m sorry, but I just don’t have it.”

These games eventually devolved to the point that they confirmed one of the key tenets of Existential philosophy—life’s inherent and inescapable absurdity. Winners and losers were determined by pure randomness. One man, when the game changed from regular Bingo to coverall Bingo, would forget and call out “Bingo” at his first row of 5. When the caller asked, “Is your whole card covered?” he’d say, “Oh, no.” But by his next completed row, he’d already forgotten and called “Bingo” once again. This geriatric purveyor of wisdom brought home to me how life changes the rules of winning and losing. Under other rules he had won, but life kept moving the goalposts.

The game started out as something seemingly very ordered and controlled, with exact numbers called loudly and repeatedly and cards of numbers in precise rowsbut within minutes, even the appearance of order was subverted in this classroom of deep thinkers: people covering wrong numbers and not covering right ones, people without winning cards calling out Bingospunctuated by loud complaints of “I’m no good at this game” and “That man wins too much” and always the questions of “What?” and “Why?” And amidst all this chaos and din, the climactic and culminating angst-ridden question that just might pinpoint the very crux of it all: “Why do you keep yelling at us?”

I wonder if maybe life is a game, a game we make up ourselves, that we decide the goal of and get to make up the rules for. A game in which we each get to define what constitutes winning and what constitutes losing. And when I formally posed this question to God, to the Universe, the answer came back loud and clear. And succinct.



(This essay first appeared in The Main Street Rag.)

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2 thoughts on “Existential Bingo”

  1. The great philosopher Bob Ross once said “We don’t laugh because we feel good, we feel good because we laugh.”

    This post made me laugh.

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