A long time ago, my lover and I were looking for activities to do together. Tennis. He helped me find the right racket and shoes, and we found a court we both liked… But neither of us knew what the other meant by “play tennis.”
I knew how to serve, the line rules for singles and doubles, and I even knew the score keeping lingo. I understood “game, set, match”. But that is not the tennis I wanted to play. I just liked hitting the ball across the net, and if I could help my partner get some exercise in there, all the better. What? Stop the ball from play? For what reason would we do this?
For a while, we “played” the “game” and I became frustrated. It was playing and more placating to an arbitrary structure. I wasn’t getting any better by the sudden and oft stopping. Admittedly my fault, it was disruptive.
The energy behind doing something together diminishing, I started thinking about what to get at the grocery store while I once again poised to receive a volley.
My partner saw this and asked. I told him outright: keeping score was no fun. I did not want to compete with him for a score and up to that moment, did not realize how deflated I had become. Was it just because I was losing, I wondered to myself? Was it pride? No, it was more simple. Getting into a grove was being thwarted by stopping the game every time the ball hit an arbitrary line. How could we get better, more accurate, find joy in sweat and running if we were lurching to a halt every 15 seconds?
I was a swimmer in my early years, so tennis was a different sort of motion, which is why I liked it. My partner also liked tennis, but I found out that afternoon for very different reasons. He agreed – we would keep playing, even if we hit the net on a serve, or the ball was out of court or we needed to hit it twice to keep volleying. And we would not keep score. We played, and I was happy.
Until I wasn’t. I could see his deflation, his loss of interest. He wasn’t enjoying this extra energy nor the rhythm of waves back and forth. Mind you, he was is good shape, so the consistent running was not the issue. We stopped as he was visibly frustrated. For him, if we were not keeping score, it lost meaning for him. He needed to compete. For him, competing brought out his best. The score was the goal to reach for, and without it, his motivation waned and so did his stride.
What were we to do? The very thing that deflated my interest is the very thing that fed his interest.
On our own terms individually, we both enjoyed tennis. (Please don’t blame me if I call hitting a ball across the net the sum total definition of “tennis”. I get it – there is a competitive sport called “Tennis”.)
The other thing we saw in each other is we both wanted to be better at it. The way he meters his skill level was by the score. The way I knew I was getting better is how often the ball landed where I intended. Getting better made him happy, not the score. Getting better made me happy, not breaking the rules.
So we found common ground. I was willing to stop the game and have a serve if we needed to double-hit or if we hit the net. We could both hit the line and keep playing. I could blissfully enjoy our time together without competing with each other, and he could blissfully keep score privately in his head as he competed with me.
We were able to derive meaning and therefore enjoyment from the same activity in very different ways. This happened not because either one of us is brilliant. It took caring about each other, each of us caring about our respective self to speak our truth, and mutual respect for our differences. In that, no one wins – we both did.