Life Lessons From Mah Jongg

Mah Jong Card Hands (combinations of winning tiles)
Example of Mah Jongg Card by Sherri B (2008) CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

I have been playing American Mah Jongg (what I think of as “Jewish lady mah jongg”) with my mom and some of her friends in the neighborhood. It’s a Saturday afternoon social activity, and I have been enjoying learning how to play. Also, those ladies serve some great snacks.

Each year, the National Mah Jongg League releases a new card with that year’s standard hands (combinations of tiles that players can make to win the game.) I’m still getting used to the various permutations of the 2015 hands (I learned last year using the 2014 card).

At the beginning of each new game, each player gets 13 tiles (which have been shuffled from the previous game). There are series of “trades” of tiles with players across, to the left and to the right, to further select the set of tiles each player has. The goal is to set a combination of tiles that will allow you to complete one of the mah jongg hands listed on the card. (We don’t play for points, but different hands get different amounts of points based on difficulty).

Once you’ve gotten the basic rules of the game down, the next big challenge in mah jongg is figuring out at what point during the course of play to commit to acquiring the tiles for a particular hand. Too early, and you don’t have a good idea what other tiles are going to come up in the course of play. Too late, and all the tiles you need to complete a hand will either be taken up or discarded. Finally, if you want to “call” and pick up tiles that other players have discarded, you have to display the picked up tile as completed set, binding you to that hand for the game. Commitment to a hand is the price of picking up an opportunity.

I realized that committing to a mah jongg hand is apt metaphor for all decision making, especially big life decisions like where to live or what kind of job to do or who you marry. You can only hang onto pluripotent possibilities for so long. You need to make a decision on which metaphorical mah jongg hand to pursue: to take that apartment opening or job opportunity or romantic relationship. Or your lack of decision will determine that it goes to someone else.

My mom is fond of quoting, “With only one tuchus, you can’t dance at two weddings.” Deciding to take one opportunity necessarily precludes the other options, but at least pick something! An active decision is better than passively accepting the status quo. You have to let it play out to discover if it’s the right decision, even if you make it with best information you have at the time.

For the last few years, trauma from past decisions (bad job, the end of a marriage, unfavorable student teaching reviews) has made me fearful of committing to a new decisions. My jobs and living arrangements have all been in short-term intervals. However, during that period, I think my tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty has grown. Only time will tell if the next big decisions I make are “good” ones, but I have confidence that I can handle whatever twists those decisions happen to bring in their wake.


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