On one episode of Big Bang Theory, Sheldon announces, “From here on in, I’ve decided to make all trivial decisions with a throw of the dice, thus freeing up my mind to do what it does best: enlighten and amaze.”
He winds up eating a side of corn succotash for dinner.
“Let’s see what I’ll be washing that succotash down with,” he says with forced cheer, rolling again. “A pitcher of margaritas! My mind is freed up to think about more important things.”
“What’s it thinking about now?” one of his buddies asks.
“Hamburgers and lemonade.”
• • •
One of my favorite professors, a man with a fine, careful, and deep mind, orders the same sandwich every day for lunch. No energy lost deciding, no risk of disappointment. Late on a chilly winter evening, a brilliant lawyer waves aside a menu and says, “Bring me a bowl of something.” I tell baristas to pick a new syrup flavor for me.
Sometimes we delegate to experts; sometimes we invoke random fate. Or flip a coin to keep the decision fair. Or ask the Eight Ball or the dregs of our tea, toss the I Ching sticks, pull off daisy petals. Faced with a huge life decision, I once turned to the wisest person I knew—and he gently told me, “It doesn’t really matter.” I was shaken; this seemed so cynical. And how could my huge decision, on which hinged the rest of My Life, not matter? He shrugged. “Whatever you do, you will learn from it, and if it isn’t the right choice, you can make another.”
Whoa. Might as well just roll the dice? That is precisely the premise of The Dice Man, a now ancient (1971) cult classic ostensibly written by a jaded psychoanalyst. His character, also a jaded psychoanalyst, is bored. He decides to turn over all decisions to a die. If he rolls a one, he will cheat on his wife.
He rolls a one. And so it begins. He forces increasingly risky choices upon the die, and the rolls bring him to rape, murder, weird sex, professional suicide, and eventually death, as he loosens his grip on the side of a cliff so he can roll the die to see what to do.
Novelist Sheila Heti got hold of this book at age thirteen (her father recommended it, which rather shocked her) and showed it to the guy she had a crush on. He started rolling, too, and that summer, the die chose whether they stripped, whether they kissed, whether….
“I think I never lost the sense that a life lived spontaneously, as if by chance, would always be a fuller, more exciting and truer life,” she writes now.
I have a feeling George Cockcroft thought so too.
You see, the author of The Dice Man—that dangerous book that influenced billionaire Richard Branson and had a British gonzo journalist nearly trash his career and disappear—was not a jaded psychoanalyst named Luke Rhinehart. He was a mild, sweet English professor named George Cockcroft. Though he was married (faithfully, we presume) to the same woman for sixty-three years, he had a vivid imagination.
Readers thought it sounded incredibly cool that the novel was written in Mallorca; they envisioned a tanned, dissolute Luke Rhinehart in exile there. Cockcroft was indeed in Mallorca when he wrote the novel—with his wife and three sons, teaching English. The novel caught on first overseas, then found a cult following here.
• • •
Routine weighs us down like a sack of sand, and from its inertia, it is weirdly difficult to summon the energy for change. If the die forces our hand, though, we have to change. Living by the die means taking a series of huge, deliberate risks in order to avoid the even larger risk of being responsible for your own decisions.
To this day, The Dice Man is hyped as a book that can change your life: “When you follow the dice, anything can happen.” Not really, though. Only one of the six options we give the die can happen. The riskiest way to play the game is to make some of the choices things you would never otherwise do. Me, I could play and remain a Hobbit, simply making one of my six choices a new flavor of jam.
Surely those who wind up having affairs or climbing cliffs already secretly wanted that outcome, or they would never have dared put it on their list? So, really, they are still choosing. The difference is one of accountability: now we can blame the die. “Why are you acting this way?” “The die picked that trait for me today.” “Why on earth would you do that?” “The die told me to.”
We are desperate to blame or credit external forces, desperate to turn over or randomize our choices. Sartre was right: freedom weighs heavy. Using the die smashes the plaster cast of personality, too, freeing us to be somebody different every day. But wait, there we still are! Right beneath that new persona, holding our breath, like somebody trying to hide behind a potted rubber tree.
The disappointing truth is that not even the die can erase us from our choices.
It is great fun to blame external forces. We like to blame religions, for example. But where Christianity or Islam or Judaism takes us depends on which form of that religion resonates with us. We rant about technology and media, but how destructive they are depends on whether we let ourselves get sucked in, and that depends on how empty we feel at the outset. Even the influence of our genetic makeup, that first roll of the dice, depends on how those genes are modified and expressed.
What really influences our choices, it seems to me, is how loved we feel, and what we have learned about life. Those sound like external forces, too—but the deciding factor is what we have internalized.
• • •
Cockcroft did earn a doctorate in psychology, and he read a lot of Zen, and he pulled a lot of pranks. Like announcing his own death in 2012. He died seven years later, but by then, once burned, the newspapers were wary of announcing it.
Back in 1999, the French journalist Emmanuel Carrère had outed Cockcroft with a long profile in the Guardian. Now Carrère went back to ask why he had faked his death. “I was getting a little tired of Luke,” Cockcroft told him, glumly adding that he had lost interest in his career, “and my career was basically Luke.”
In 2017, two years before his death, Cockcroft showed the Guardian a 1969 entry from his diary: “I must finish the Dice Man novel. I know that if I open the novel and begin to read it, I, and it, will live, and my desire to work on it and complete it will bloom again. I am the Dice Man in a way I am no one else. It is the idea which my life has created.”
He was right. The sequels he wrote went nowhere. The Dice Man still lives.
But was Cockcroft a dice man? He and his buddies rolled in their teens to decide what to do on the weekend. He rolled again to muster the courage to ask a pretty nurse out on a date (she became his wife). But he did not live by the die. People who came to see him were often disappointed to see how attached he was to his habits. “It’s not rolling along in the same old patterns that is bad in itself,” he said, “but rather if you’re enjoying the rolling. If you’re comfortable in the selves you’re rolling along with, then roll on. Most people aren’t. They don’t like who they are. It’s with them in mind that I wrote all those things about the dice. But I’m fine as I am.”
And we … are easily fooled. Especially by ourselves.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.