My year in high school as an exchange student in Bremen was challenging, even though the experience was invaluable. One of the most difficult parts was my host mother.
I stayed with a large host family (I had 7 host sisters for a year). My host-mother was… let’s just say she appeared to be perpetually angry.
In retrospect, she probably wasn’t so much continuously angry so much as exhausted. Imagine two babies crawling every where, two girls about 7 years old, and the rest in other stages, all with their own activities. It was probably a miracle my host-mother ever got to sleep at night. It still is a bit shocking that they took me in as an exchange student, and I am very grateful for them hosting me for a year: they looked after me for exactly 365 days, which was really outstanding.
But it wasn’t always easy. My host mother would barge into my room and yell at me. I was an extra mouth to feed (and boy did I eat a lot, compared to my host-sisters), and then, there was the extra laundry. I didn’t do things the way they expected me to— partly because there weren’t any teenage boys in the house for comparison — and partly because, growing up in the US in a small nuclear family, my habits were… different.
Still, at the age of 16, I didn’t understand all that. Well, at least not at first. It appeared like I had this angry host-mother who would yell at me for no apparent reason. I felt alone at first. It was hard enough not speaking the language. I wasn’t used to being yelled at — and here I was getting yelled at every few days just for attempting to do the things the way I was accustomed to.
Many of the other exchange students switched host families during the year, for this very same reason: when you have different expectations of how to behave and live, there are bound to be clashes. But I chose to stick it out.
My turning point was about half way through the year. I didn’t know what to do about my host-mother, but I knew I couldn’t take much more. I’m not sure what struck me, but I chose to turn it into a game.
I named the game as OH-MY: Operation Host-Mother Yahoo. The objective was simple. No matter how angry my host mother was, could I still make her smile?
Soon as I turned it the situation into a game, I found myself responding in a more light-hearted manner. I came off arrogant at first, responding with a cheerful quip, not taking her storms seriously… and usually just made them worse. But when I was playing the game, suddenly it didn’t matter if I won or lost. It was a quest… and her being angry was just an opportunity for me to play the game. If I lost a round, so what? I’d learn something and play again.
By the end of the year, she was rarely angry with me, and quite pleasant most of the time. But regardless of her attitude towards me, she no longer had the ability to disturb my happiness. I had won the game.
It took me years to understand what I figured out: that you can transform any hardship in your life by turning it into a game. Suddenly, the hardship is an opportunity to play. Magic enters when you’re playing a game — because it’s no longer personal. It’s no longer the world “doing this” to you. Instead, you become an active player in the game, with the power to play — you are responsible for how you choose to act. You may win, you may lose, but even this doesn’t really matter… because it’s how you choose to play.
In “The Art of Possibility”, by Rosamund Stone & Benjamin Zander, they explained a tool called “Being the Board”. Blame is a concept from the world of measurement, and the amount to which you blame others is the amount to which you lose your power. The practice of being the board begins with declaring:
“I am the framework for everything that happens in my life”
And then you ask, “How did this get on the board that I am?”
Being the board is about being present and letting go of attachment to the outcome. From here, you can act from a place of joy, no longer a victim of the whims of the world.
So, next time you realize you’ve been suffering in the same way, over and over again: Stop. Take some time and turn it into a game — one that you own. Come up with a fun name for it, and start rolling the dice to see what comes up.
If not, you’re just giving away the keys of your happiness to someone else, and unless you have some hearty emotional insurance, you might not like what they do to your car.
Also published on Medium.