In 1998, two automotive dealership technicians became very competitive in their attempts to date the dealership’s cashier. Each thought they were the better man. During the ensuing months, each unsuccessfully attempted to build their bravado while simultaneously sabotaging the other. Then, one day, each technician received customer vehicles that required testing driving to validate non-related complaints. When each technician noticed the other traveling in the opposite lane, they somehow went directly at each other. (As in head-on.) While each denied responsibility, both stated they expected the other driver to perform evasive maneuvers. Neither did, and both vehicles were destroyed. In theory, if you play the game of ‘chicken’ without credibly committing to staying in the middle of the road, you are likely to lose. The other player is unlikely to swerve. Therefore, either you dodge or crash. Unfortunately, humans love wrecks.

Most grown men would quickly assess that engaging in chicken is fruitless. Yet, men play chicken all the time. The film Thirteen Days (Cuban Missile Crisis) demonstrates one such scenario.

Acheson states, “Your first step, sir, will be to demand that the Soviet withdraw the missiles within 12 to 24 hours. They will refuse. When they do, you will order the strikes, followed by the invasion. They will resist but will be overrun. They will retaliate against a target somewhere else in the world, most likely Berlin. We will honor our treaty commitments and resist them there, defeating them per our plans.” 

“Those plans call for the use of nuclear weapons?” President Kennedy questions, “And what is the next step?”

Acheson sits back in his chair, smoothing his mustache.” Hopefully, ‘cooler heads’ will prevail before we reach the next step.”

For a more recent example, look no farther back than last week. As you may have heard, America is nearing its debt limit. The U.S. Government has had a ‘debt limit’ for over 100 years. And if our elected leaders do not raise the debt limit, the U.S. Treasury begins using so-called “extraordinary measures” to keep paying bills. Should such measures get implemented, U.S. troops and federal employees will not get paid. Veterans could see compensation or pension payments lapse, and millions of Americans on food assistance would see benefits stop. This concerned Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen so profoundly that she a memo over the weekend, warning of “… a historic financial crisis that would compound the damage of the continuing public health emergency.” 

Two years ago, raising the U.S. debt limit was not a problem. Under the Trump administration, Congress passed bipartisan legislation that suspended the nation’s debt limit for several years. However, this year, Senator Mitch McConnell declared Senate Republicans would not vote to increase the Treasury’s authority to continue borrowing. (That’s like saying, “We’re voting for default.”) Senator Susan Collins reiterated McConnell’s position, “The Democrats have added enormous amounts of debt, including the $1.9 trillion package, now $3.5 trillion on top of that, so they bear the responsibility for increasing the debt limit.” It’s strange how the very Republicans, who willingly supported Trump’s suspension of debt limits, now no longer supports raising the U.S. debt limit. However, Collins fails to mention that the debt limit only applies to paying for the expenses of fiscal policies already enacted (Trump’s included), not to Biden’s proposed spending packages (for proposals are not signed law). 

But you might say, “Mr. Unknown Buddhist, these are the outliers. They do not represent the mainstream.” Really? Hypocrisy (or playing chicken) is not exclusive to the federal government. For example, Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley wrote about Florida’s new Surgeon General

“… [In] the state that recorded more COVID-19 cases and deaths in August than it did in any month before vaccines became widely available, Governor DeSantis appointed a new surgeon general. Is it someone normal who will tell people to get vaccinated? No, you idiot! It’s a doctor named Joseph Ladapo who was last seen on the national stage participating in a COVID miracle cure event with another doctor who believes that lizard people control the government; that demons cause gynecological problems by implanting stolen sperm; and a third doctor who got arrested for being part of the mob to overturn the presidential election.” 

Last, the piousness of religious zealots amazes me. But we’ve witnessed it before, just days after September 11, 2001. From the PBS Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, Reverend David Benke, Lutheran Minister, related the following.

“The Yankee Stadium day was pivotal in my entire life. It was a day when everything that I had stood for as a human being, as well as a person of faith, was going to be on the line. When I shared the podium with representatives of all the major faiths and prayed, that prayer became the center of a major controversy. The very next day, I began to get messages filled with hate. They were messages not from people outside of my tradition but from within my tradition. And they were messages that nailed me to the floor, frankly, emotionally. They just said, “You were wrong to be there. You never should have gone to Yankee Stadium. You are a heretic. You have dishonored your faith.” One man said genuine terrorism was me. He said, “Planes crash, and people die. Nothing big about that.” Genuine terrorism was me giving that prayer.”

In a lot of ways, Americans are left holding the bag for ‘chicken.’ We always have. We’ve just ignored it. In 2016, I wrote of an old story about a man wanting to become a locomotive engineer. Accordingly, the lead instructor presented the applicant with a problem.

“If you had one train coming from one direction at 55 mph and another train coming from another direction at 45 mph, what would you do?”

Thinking for a minute, the applicant responded, “I think I’d call my brother.”

“That’s an extraordinary answer. Why would you do that?”

“Because my brother has never seen a train wreck before.”

In life and medicine, everyone expects a miracle. It feels impossible that something horrific will happen. Eventually, though, miracles don’t happen. So we ignore our liability while combing through everything of the other guy. “Of course I’m right. It’s the other guy’s fault.” Maybe that’s the excuse we’ll present God. “It’s that guy’s fault.” I know that each of us supports a darker truth: It’s that one day, we’ll crash. If the debt limit is not raised, people will suffer and die. The decisions that Florida’s leaders will make are likely to kill more people. and religious zealots will continue to flourish because its members will look away. It’s not about personal accountability. It’s about ‘chicken.’ And if we continue to play ‘chicken,’ one day, many people will get ‘wrecked,’ but that’s ‘standard operating procedure’ today.