Both my sons enjoy playing chess. Largely self taught, my young Rooks will challenge one another with the tool disguised as a game that has been used for generations to teach the strategies of war, the art of psychology and philosophy, the value of patience, forethought, mindfulness and principals that are true of life as much as they are true in Chess such as the fact it is just as important to win with grace as it is to lose with dignity, that strategy without patience is caustic, that we must remain flexible and that at the end of the day, the pawn and the king both return to the same box…
In our family of three, chess has become a way of getting to know one another person to person rather than mother to son or brother to brother. When the board is between us I have seen the character traits of my children develop and be revealed more through their game play than any observational vantage point and in turn they have seen the veil of ‘mother’ fall away to see who Vanessa is more than through any other lens so to say Chess is valuable to us and representative of something special between us is an understatement.
Early last year I was passing through Athens, Greece and I had it on my heart to find a chess board and pieces that was adequate enough in its beauty to represent the connection the three of us had made through it with one another. If I could find such a board I would take it home and gift it to my eldest son in the hopes that in the coming years we would all continue to challenge and learn about one another with it and perhaps he would use it to learn about his own son one day.
On a warm, still evening under the glow of the illuminated Acropolis I went street to street and market stall to market stall searching for the gift. I came upon a nearly-closing, narrow store paved with smooth marble stone. I stepped inside to find chess boards and pieces stacked to the ceiling on every wall and a bushy eyebrowed Greek man shuffling behind the counter. After discussing with him that I was looking for a gift for my son he began to pull board after board and I rejected one after the other after the other.
They weren’t perfect. It had to be perfect.
At last he pulled a beautiful wooden boxed board which wasn’t as elaborate as the others had been but looked proud, strong and beautiful.
It was hinged with small brass hinges and a clasp at the front. It was the one I thought my son would pick if he had been there with me that night.
The bushy eyebrowed Greek man then showed me the selection of playing pieces. Together we chose pieces that represented Greek gods for one side and Roman gods for the other. The man told me that these were strong playing pieces and to prove it he threw one down onto the marble with all his strength, breaking off a small piece of marble, but leaving the chess piece unscathed. “They will last your lifetime and your sons… and his sons”
Yes, I thought. They will.
As the man set it up before me I could already picture my boys hands grow and mature as they hovered over this board in the coming years and I had it tightly packaged and sealed and it didn’t leave my side for the entire 45 hour transit home.
But this story isn’t about the look on my sons face when he opened the gift the night I got home or the many games that followed or how much he loved that set and everything it represented for us.
This story is about how the game of chess once again served as an important tool in teaching a profound lesson. The most important lesson of all.
A lesson my son learnt tonight and will, with any luck, remember for the rest of his life and perhaps use to tell his own son one day if he ever needs to tell his son about the importance of being thankful for what you have and respecting it….lest it get taken away.
For years I have tried to instil in my boys the importance of being wise stewards of the gifts we have in our life. Not just things, but people, friendships, freedom, knowledge, faith, opportunities, vision, soundness of mind… but this lesson mostly gets exemplified by ‘things’ seeing it is much easier to teach a young child how to value and take care of, say a book rather than to value their freedom or knowledge.
It’s a hard lesson to teach and it’s a hard lesson to learn.
Anyone with kids has been there: they leave their clothes on the floor, you find books sitting under spilt lemonade, the PlayStation controller becomes a useful weapon when hurled across the room towards his brothers forehead…..
But through it all I have always had the same approach in dealing with carelessness: I sit them down and remind them that while we don’t have a lot, we have a hell of a lot more than a lot of people and that we must value and respect everything we have every day.
If they are careless with the thing again, they lose the thing. Simple.
To prove the point I once gave away their new x-box and games because they left the games out of their cases and on the floor. Again.
They got better over the years to the point where I can’t remember the last time I had to have a proper sit-down chat to remind them to value their things, not to leave their books out or that NO, the PlayStation controller isn’t a hand grenade… however they are both older now, the lessons are becoming more about valuing what the initial value of things eventually paves the way for: The irreplaceable. The people, the freedom, the soundness of mind…. Lest we lose them.
How do you teach a child something like that? How can one conversation or a single lesson ever instil a lesson so profound?
Well…life, like in the game of chess, presents us with opportunities and in that moment we must take them.
Tonight I had that opportunity and how poignant it was that it was Chess once again that served as the tool to develop this character trait in my son. The chess pieces themselves as a matter of fact.
You see, I had noticed tonight that the pieces were not assembled upon the board, ready for play and on proud display as they usually were. The board was in one place, the playing pieces in a pile elsewhere. I didn’t have to count them to know they were not all there.
I called my son to me and sat him down.
I told him again the story of the night I found the chess board. I told him about how I wanted it to be the perfect gift and how many streets I walked to find the store with the bushy eyebrowed Greek man. I told him how much joy I had gotten in going over every chess board the man presented to me, dismissing one after the other because it had to be perfect, the perfect gift for him, my eldest son who I loved so much. He remembered with me and we smiled together as I reminded him of how that single board with its Greek and Roman gods had taught us so much about one another and how much it represented for us as a family. I told him that if he were to lose even one piece that the whole game would become useless to us, seeing as every piece was unique and irreplaceable, the game unplayable with even a single piece missing.
“If we lose even one piece, we will never again be able to play with that board and we will lose something special, something irreplaceable.”
Then I asked him to assemble the pieces back on the board and put it on proud display.
Even now as I type this next sentence the tears come to my eyes as I recall to you the frantic look that began to develop on his face as he assembled the pieces one by one….realising first that the Bishop, represented by the Greek god of music and then the Queen, represented by the Roman Empress…..were both missing.
His eyes darted backwards and forwards across the board, then around the board, then to the floors, behind the tables, under the lounge… but never to my own eyes as I sat there quietly, heart in my throat as I watched the valuable lesson I knew he was about to learn begin to settle on his shoulders. The pieces were no where to be found.
I let the panicked search go on and on before finally taking his arm and telling him “They’re gone Son, stop now. They’re gone”
With that he ran out of the room and into the bathroom where the running water didn’t quite drown out his sobs. And more sobs and more sobs.
I didn’t go to him. I didn’t call out to him.
I waited for the lesson to settle around him and over him and into him.
In time he emerged, t-shirt soaked with tears, eyes still avoiding mine.
I called his name and asked him to stand before me and then I said “Son, you will never know how much it has hurt me that you didn’t care enough about that gift to respect it and protect it. How are you feeling right in this moment? You’re hurting aren’t you? It hurts deep, deep down because you have lost something that meant a lot for you and for us as a family. You have lost something that can never be replaced and you lost it because you didn’t value it and you weren’t thankful for it.”
I told him that I wanted him to let the hurt sink in and to never, ever forget how he feels in that moment. I said “In all our years together we have never had a lot, but we have always had so much more than so many others and I have always tried to teach you the importance of being thankful for what we have every single day and to respect what we have because I want to tell you something about life: If you aren’t thankful for the gifts in your life, one way or another, you will lose them. When you aren’t thankful for the things in your life, you will lose them, when you don’t value the friendships in your life, you will lose them, when you don’t respect your freedom or your soundness of mind, you will lose it and tonight, for the first time you understand what I mean because you have lost something so much more than chess pieces, you have lost something that is irreplaceable and you have hurt me and you have hurt yourself because of it.”
It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to say to him. He was hurting deeply and because I love him deeply I wanted him to stop hurting. I wanted to be able to produce the missing pieces and tell him it was all ok, to comfort him and take the burden in his heart away but to do so would be to rob him of a lesson that is too important to not learn. This lesson can only be learned through the pain of losing something you deeply value and represents something irreplaceable. The lesson can only be remembered by remembering the pain of the experience. To relieve him and placate him would be a neglect and a negligence on my part.
So I let my words hang in the air and I let him stand on his own and cry and then I embraced him and told him that I loved him enough to let the experience hurt him now because it might just prevent him from the pain of losing something so much more.
I said “Remember how I told you that we must value all things in our life? Well valuing a lesson itself is an important a lesson as any so lets value and be thankful for the lesson you have learned tonight. Lets be thankful that you learned to value the gifts in your life because you lost some chess pieces and not because you lost a friendship or because you lost your freedom or because you lost someone you love. For the rest of your life I want you to remember the pain you feel right now so that you never again neglect to value the other things in your life that are truly irreplaceable. If you can do that, then you will have learned one of the most profound and important life lessons and you would have learned it as a young man.”
Although I’m sure my tear stained son would argue this point: That was harder for me than it was for him. The most important lessons in life are often the hardest to learn, but I assure you, they are even harder to teach someone who you love. It often involves tears, it often involves deep disappointment or regret, it often involves pain.
Whoever would want to see their child in pain? But when the opportunity presents itself for such a valuable lesson to be taught so deeply, we must take it and we must stand firm. Was the x-box I gave away all those years ago expensive? Yes.
Was I willing to pay the price to see them value their things more? Yes.
Was that chess set expensive but representative of something priceless? Yes.
Was I willing to let my son pay the price to see him value what is irreplaceable? Absolutely yes.
I just popped my head in to check on my son. He is asleep now, his shirt still damp wear where his tears fell. I wonder what he is dreaming about.
The chess set sits packed away in the cupboard now, the remaining pieces sitting within the beautiful proud board alongside the memories our little family made and the insights we had into one another and life principals it taught us, the final and most important one seeing not the pawns this time, but rather the Queen and Bishop be sacrificed in order to protect the King truth: Be thankful for what you have.