Life Lessons from Wordle

After months of steadfastly refusing to add yet another potential distraction to my day, I succumbed and tried my hand at the online game, Wordle. Granted, I can think of playing this game as, ’honing my mental skills,’ and ‘whetting my thinking process,” rather than a distraction, but the danger of one more thing that eats up time in my day is real.

Nonetheless, after hearing so much about Wordle, I did try it out. Wordle is a simple and clever word game similar to the game of Hangman that I spent too much class-time playing with friends in school. In those prehistoric days, we played on paper. One student chose, and did not reveal, a five letter word. The second student made a random guess, wrote her guess down and passed it to the first person (obviously, when the teacher wasn’t looking). Student #1 would mark how many letters of the suggested word were actually in the mystery word and, of those letters, how many were in the correct location. The hangman name came from drawing one more feature of a basic hanging man each time the complete word wasn’t guessed. A face, a neck, a stick body, two stick hands and two stick legs completed the hanging man. If you finished the drawing, the person guessing lost the round.

Enter the digital era, and Wordle is an easier version of that game* on an app or website rather than on paper. This leads me to the reason I am sharing my experience with you. In this modern version, you get five chances to guess the mystery word. There are 228,132 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Let us postulate that 2 percent of them are composed of five letters, which I imagine is a very low estimate, especially when you add 4-letter-words with an ’s’ at the end and 3-letter-words with an ‘ed’ or ‘er’ after them. That would make at least approximately 4,563 words that could be used in Wordle. How in the world can you guess one word out of thousands in only five turns?

It turns out that the answer to that question is, “Quite easily.” Here is an example. While in school I tended to start with the same guess each time, in my current adventure I randomly begin with a word that pops into my head. This is a recent sequence I had:

  1. Guess #1 – completely random: PLEAS. Response: There is an E in the hidden word, but it is not in the location I gave (space #3). The word has no P, L, A, or S.
  2. Guess #2: CHIME. Response: The hidden word has an M and an E, neither of which are in the location I gave. The word has no C, H, or I.
  3. Guess #3: MOVED. Response: The hidden word has an M and an E, neither of which are in the location I gave. The word has no O, V, or D.
  4. Guess #4: FEMUR. Response: SUCCESS

I have seen a similar progression a few times now. With the information I had from my first three guesses, femur is the only word I thought of that fit the parameters. Sometimes, there are more choices (i.e. if I know that the word starts with STEA the final letter could be a D,M,K or L) but, basically, within 3-4 tries, I get the correct word. My options are much fewer than I would imagine. Each step I take, closes off avenues.

Isn’t this true for life?

We live with two competing understandings of reality, both of them true. One, every decision we make affects every decision that follows and, two, at the same time, we have the agency to drastically change our path.

Here is an example of what I mean. In 2020, Stephanie Land wrote a book recounting her struggles as a single mom trying to take care of herself and her daughter. Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive had a foreword written by political activist Barbara Ehrenreich, who was prominent in the Democratic Socialists of America a few decades back. The book, which received wide acclaim, including becoming a Netflix mini-series, showed the difficult struggle of a young woman to support herself with menial work. She was cleaning houses instead of continuing her education in the college program to which she had been accepted before she became pregnant. Her work was physically taxing, low-paying, and insecure. The implied message was that we need more food stamps, more aid to single mothers, more, more, and more social support and money sent to low-income individuals.

Ms. Land is admirable. I appreciate that she did not opt for an abortion and that she was willing to scrub toilets in order to put food on the table. What I found missing in the book was her taking responsibility for randomly sleeping with a stranger one night, an evening that had grave repercussions. Had she chosen an abortion, that night would also have shaped her life forever. She experienced what she thought of as a minor, alcohol assisted, (I read the book quite a while ago, so I might be off on this fact), night of fun, and it changed her life. That is called reality. At the same time, she still could, and did, work her way to a better future as attested to by her becoming a best-selling author.

Sometimes we make poor choices and God saves us from immediate consequences. Some drunk drivers make it home safely. Some students cheat on tests and do not get caught. We would be wrong to think that an action that utilizes poor character or poor judgment doesn’t affect us even if we don’t see the repercussions immediately. There is a saying in ancient Jewish wisdom that a correct deed leads to more correct deeds and doing something wrong leads to doing more things wrong. “Getting away” with small things actually may lull us into thinking that we are unassailable and direct us to repeat and elevate that type of action until, BAM, we are hit with a severe outcome. Yet, just like with Wordle, when we set out on a path, the choices in our future become narrower and more defined. Breaking free and going in a different direction takes increasingly more effort and pain.

Like so many games and apps, Wordle is both fun and enticing. Hidden inside it is a moral message that is well worth heeding.

*Wordle identifies which letters are in the correct position, which we did not do in our school game.

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