01/27/2012 05:09 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2012

Shell Games

I don't want to play
it's a shell game

Conor Oberst

"Shell Games" was one of my favorite tunes off of The People's Key. It was a title that meant very little to me until I lost almost everything in my wallet to a shell game I played last month in Berlin. Yes, to my shame I fell for one of the oldest cons in the book. It's one of my lowest moments and even now (weeks later) I'm having a hard time writing all of this down. So let this be my confession, a written penance for an incident in my life I wish I could get back.

I was walking around Berlin with my brother Tim on a rare day-off from our European tour. It was a sunny prospect on a cold, grey, wet, German day. We had no agenda. We were looking for nothing in particular; maybe a good cup of coffee, or a hearty German meal, or a museum or an old church. Mostly, we were hoping to stumble across a memory, some sort of story to take home with us.

After purchasing and deploying the added warmth of long underwear I was ready for anything. The first coffee shop we found had all of the international charm of a New Jersey drugstore. My brother gave me a look and we decided to take our lust for caffeine elsewhere.

That's when I saw it: the shell game.

Of course I had no name for it then. I was simply watching "the locals" in high spirits waving large sums of money around what appeared to be some sort of gambling game. I wandered closer and saw a man with three cups and a balled up piece of paper under one of the cups. The game seemed fairly straightforward: you bet your money on which cup is hiding the paper-ball.

Even as I'm telling you this I can't believe that I fell for it. The whole thing sounds absurd. It has all of the signs of a scam. But at the time, I was completely sucked in. I truly thought that my search for adventure had finally led me to what I believed to be an authentic German amusement.

As it turns out, the shell game has been fooling suckers like myself since ancient Greece. Looking back, the whole affair felt almost as if I had been dreaming -- walking into some other world but knowing that something wasn't quite right. After some encouragement from the "locals" I jumped in and threw some money down. Seconds later, my money was gone. I was stunned. How had this happened? I was so sure that I had the game figured out. After my first attempt had failed, my younger, wiser brother tried to talk me out of it. "They're all in on it! The whole thing's rigged!"

And this is my confession: I am not the younger, wiser sibling. I am the bull-headed elder brother. So I jumped right back in trying to win my money back. Yes, trying to win my money back. Again, such stupidity! I was chasing a ghost, running after a mirage. The sleight of hand had fooled me into believing that there was a game to be played, a prize to be won.

But of course, my brother was right. The shell game is not a game at all. There never was any money to be won. I walked away shaking my head, wondering what had possessed me to be so foolish. I tried my best to laugh it off and enjoy the day but the event haunted me for some time, even giving me nightmares for weeks to come. There was something deeply disturbing about what had taken place. Yes, I had lost a couple days of per diem but the loss felt much more profound than that. What was it in me that was so susceptible to the hoax? Why was I so easily deceived, so quick to chase after this ghost?

My brother laughed and said, "You're the perfect mark! You're trusting, always assuming the best in people. And yet you're competitive and willing to try something new." He's right. My desire to win is usually stronger than my fear of loss. And yes, I am willing to take risks. However, I would say that greed might be a quicker way to describe my motivation. Whatever the rationale, I had fallen for the ruse all the same. In spite of my better judgment I jumped headlong into the swindle. And I was ashamed of myself.

I had a hard time sleeping that night. My dreams were dark and strange. In one of my dreams, I was playing the shell game on the corner just like earlier in the day. The streets looked the same as before except the faces around me were grotesque and distorted- like monsters. These faces were laughing at me, mocking me. I lost the game the same as before, but this time I tried to chase my opponents down. As I ran after them they seemed to float away from me- disappearing into the fog. They were turning into ghosts, fading into nothing until only their laughter remained. I woke in a cold sweat, breathing heavy.

I got out of my bunk and wondered what my dreams could mean. I put some clothes on and tried to shake off the nightmare. When I stepped outside, the shock of cold woke me up immediately. Under the frozen German sky my existence felt very small. I began to think of the other shell games in my own life. The relationships. The ambitions. The rivalries. My drive to succeed might be a noble aim at times, but tonight I was thinking of all the many times it had made a fool of me. I looked back to my Jr. High longing to finally be accepted. I thought of my desire to prove myself as a songwriter, as a man. I began to laugh at myself and my fleeting hope that "the critics" would finally understand these songs. But how much is enough? How many records or tickets sold will ever prove any form of meaning?

Perhaps I've become an easy mark for a much larger con: a shell game that robs my life away from me, one moment at a time. "If only I had that job, that house, that girlfriend, that car." I hunt down my fantasies ignoring the reality around me. The people around me who truly care for me, the true needs of those who depend on me; I cast these realities aside for the phantoms that lie just out of reach. Ignoring that which is in my pursuit for that which is not. Chasing ghosts. It's a shell game, a sleight of hand.

Of course, neither relationships nor possessions are inherently good or evil in and of themselves. Our shell game begins when we turn these things into absolutes. We begin to ignore the realities around us in our blind chase for meaning and purpose, hoping that these finite goals will provide us infinite, ultimate significance. It's a timeless trick, an ancient sleight of hand.

I have thrown myself into the con games that cannot be won. And maybe I'm the last one on the planet to fall for this sort of thing, but lately I get the feeling that I'm not alone in the madness. I get the feeling that there are others who chase these phantoms alongside me. We are chasing ghosts, hunting the apparitions of fortune, fame, power, and pleasure. We are throwing our money down again and again, hoping every time that this moment will be different than the last, this time we will defeat the scam after all.

But of course the shell game always wins, robbing us every time. And over time, the sleight of hand tears at our humanity. We become less loving, less present, less ourselves as we chase our phantoms around. We become less and less substantial in our ghostly pursuits. Like some sort of horror-film ghost-machine: we become ghosts chasing after ghosts. As Augustine says: "such is each one as is his love." We turn into the very phantoms that we pursue.

I look around and see easy marks like myself. All of our focus is on the shells, hoping that this time we can overcome the machination; this time we'll get our money back. I recognize the empty look in their eyes: these are rational, enlightened men and women like myself, who have fallen for the con. Yes, I am an easy mark. I have fallen for much darker shell games than the one I stumbled upon in Germany. To my shame, I have chased after the apparitions of my ego secretly hoping that my pursuit will lend meaning and purpose to my life. I have lost much more than money in my pursuits. But when I have clarity I see the scam of it all. My temporal, finite pursuits never offered me ultimate resolution nor eternal fulfillment. How could this chase of mine possibly have had a happy ending?

I confess: I've been chasing after ghosts. Playing games that cannot be won, games that aren't games at all. If I had it to do over again, I hope that I would see through the deception. I hope that I would spare my money from the shell game and invest in reality instead, spending my life on that which has true purpose, rather than a black hole. Maybe I would pay for my brother's cup of coffee and ask him about his family. Maybe I would give it to the homeless girl across the street. Next time around, I hope I would avoid the deception and put my time, energy, and money back into the reality around me instead. Investing in real needs, real life. Real pain. Real hope. The rest is just a shell game, ghost machines: vampires that suck our lives away. I've played the shell games. I found out the hard way that there is nothing to win. It's not a game at all. Listen to your brother. Just laugh and walk away.