The Ancient Game

image by Midjourney; my own prompt

So we circle around each other, 
a bit more subtly than our distant ancestors, but still —
Making our first impressions.
It’s usually mostly chemistry to start,
but not necessarily: Somebody always has to be picked last.

We imagine each other as being
the way we hope they will be — just asking for disappointment.
And we pretend to be who we are not,
but instead, who we hope the other will be attracted to.

It’s an ancient game, this fraught reading of signs,
pre-linguistic, a play of acting as if we might be, just possibly
the right one.
Though now, dependent on language,
we have forgotten how to sense, to notice
the eyes glancing, raised, questioning, and then
shifting to some other focus, cautious,
careful not to be too obvious.

We have forgotten the smell of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and ‘not sure’,
buried now in a blare of overlaid fruits and florals.

And so the conditioning begins.
We want different things
(though we no longer know quite what we want:
it’s confused with what we think we should want,
and what we fear we might want, that we can never have.
The traffickers of dreams have done their job on us,
so we long for perfection, the rarified image
of everything that could be.
Anything less will no longer do; “good enough for now”
is no longer good enough, ever.)

Still, our body knows. It knows exactly what it wants.
It’s only ‘us’, sitting inside staring out ‘our’ eyes,
believing our selves in control, that are clueless.
‘We’ are filled with need, and don’t even know what we need.
We can no longer listen to our bodies, though in the end
it is they that decide what we do.
It is they who are conditioned. We are not even that.
We are the impotent sorcerers, poring over the clues,
hopelessly trying to decipher what our body’s actions meant.

So let’s leave our selves out of it: How do these two bodies,
these amalgams of chemicals and cells
and brains too large and unwieldy for their own good —
how do they, now, unfamiliar,
impress upon, condition each other,
right from the start?

They are sending each other pheromones, on one level,
far beyond our understanding, making sense of each other,
in a way our brains could never make sense of.

And on another level, riding on top of the subliminal,
they direct and reflect signals of pleasure and pain —
“This body will reward that body if it does that, and punish
or withhold reward, if it does something else.”
That is what it is all about.

Most of it is learning, an endless negotiation
of what to that other body constitutes a reward
or a punishment. And there are advantages,
in this game, for sending confusing messages,
for keeping the other body off balance.

Wild creatures are better than that —
they are honest about, and aware of their conditioning.
But our bodies and brains are too smart,
too cruel for such integrity, so they manipulate,
try to get what they want by ruse.

And so the game plays out. The bodies and brains
‘we’ presume to inhabit and control
disrupt and reinforce each other’s behaviours,
seeking to get, impossibly, everything that they want.
Even if that means conditioning the other
to want something less than, or different from,
what it thought it wanted.
That works for a while.

The ideal, which every body is conditioned to pursue,
to our great collective sadness,
can never be achieved. There is always a gap.
If the gap becomes too large, there will be a split —
It’s unbearable, better to be apart.
Or the gap is within, and the split is within,
a prelude to depression, disconnection and despair.
Or both — gaps within and between.

If the gap stays small enough, no mean feat,
then the game will go on.

And meanwhile all around the body
the chemical conditioning is shifting
from the young initial alchemy of intense, euphoric bonding,
to the stabler, more enduring chemistry of calm attachment:
From dopamine to endorphin.

So the game has two elements, two means of scoring:
the reciprocal biological conditioning
of each other’s bodies,
and the reciprocal cultural conditioning
of each other’s brains.

The game continues only so long as the score is close.

Oh, to be a simpler beast: re-clued
to the body’s primal messages,
less hampered by a convoluted brain,
in a body that needs much less,
and knows precisely what it wants.

To just be animal, silent,
perceiving instead of conceiving,
paying attention instead of making sense.

To be less conditioned by this tragic human culture
and more by this amazing body and its senses,
untranslated into human meaning.

To find a wilder, freer game to play.

inspired by a question from John Whiting, and by John Gray’s book The Silence of Animals

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