Monday, July 09, 2018

The Seriousness of Play

This is the text of my reflections (and the readings) from the service this past Sunday, July 8, 2018, at the congregation I serve here in Charlottesville.  This was a multigenerational service which was not just about play, but was, itself, a time of play.

Opening Words:

The German wildlife photographer Norbert Rosing has a particular affinity for polar bears.  His work has been featured in National Geographic, and in 2006 he published, The World of the Polar Bear, which follows a family of bears over the course of a year in words and pictures.  You may have heard the story I’m about to tell.  (I’m quoting here, with slight adaptations, from one of the one of the websites that recounts this well-documented story.)

“The location was a kennel outside Churchill, Manitoba owned by dog breeder Brian Ladoon, who kept some 40 Canadian Eskimo sled dogs there when Rosing visited in 1992. A large polar bear showed up one day and took an unexpected interest in one of Ladoon's tethered dogs. [The bear was estimated to weigh about 1,200 lbs.] The other dogs went crazy as the bear approached, Rosing says, but this one, named Hudson, "calmly stood his ground and began wagging his tail." To Rosing and Ladoon's surprise, the two "put aside their ancestral animus," gently touching noses and apparently trying to make friends.  [Rosing notes that “polar bears and dogs are natural enemies and "99 percent of the bears behave quite aggressively toward dogs."]
Just then another large polar bear arrived and advanced toward one of Ladoon's other dogs, Barren. The latter rolled on his back, then the pair commenced playing "like two roughhousing kids," Rosing writes, tumbling around in the snow as he snapped pictures of the surreal encounter from the safety of his vehicle. The bear returned for more play sessions every afternoon for 10 days in a row.”  [From ThoughtCo., “Polar Bear and Huskies at Play – Analysis.”]

Reflections:  The Seriousness of Play

During the summer season the fundamental human question – the “Big Question,” if you will –  we’re exploring together is, “how to live a good life.”  This week’s answer is, “playfully.”  Before going any further, though, I want to be clear that in doing so I’ll be conflating a number of different things.  Play, of course, but also foolishness, clowning around, humor, laughter, and probably a few other things too.  But let’s start with play – a subject studied by Charles Darwin, Jean Piaget, Sigmund Floyd, Carl Jung and a host of other pretty serious people.  So … what, exactly, is play?

Patrick Bateson is emeritus professor of ethology at the University of Cambridge.  (“Ethology” is the study of animal behavior, focusing on behavior in natural conditions.)  Professor Bateson has written, “’play’ as used by biologists and psychologists is a broad term denoting almost any activity that is not ‘serious’ or ‘work.’”

Peter Gray, research professor at Boston College says, “[play] is self-chosen and self-directed … [with] rules that are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of players.”

There is no greater example of this than a game called “Calvinball,” which comes from the classic comic strip Calvin and Hobbes (created by Bill Waterson).  In Calvinball, “players make up the rules as they go along.  Rules cannot be used twice (except for the rule that rules cannot be used twice), and any plays made in one game may not be made again in any future games.”  Calvin himself noted, “No sport is less organized than Calvinball,” and that, “sooner or later, all [his] games turn into Calvinball.”  [from the page on Calvinball on The Calvin and Hobbes Wiki]  Sometimes it seems as though life is an on-going game of Calvinball, doesn’t it?  With ever changing rules?

People at the National Institute of Play – and yes, there is such a thing – have identified seven “types” of play:
  • ·         Attunement Play
  • ·         Body & Movement Play
  • ·         Object Play
  • ·         Social Play
  • ·         Imaginative and Pretend Play
  • ·         Storytelling/Narrative Play
  • ·         Creative Play

Each of these seem to have two purposes.  First, they are just fun in-and-of-themselves.  Just about all animals seem to play, and while scientists have identified utilitarian reasons for this play, they’ve also had to admit that play behaviors are also simply enjoyable, are done just for the pleasure they bring.  Secondly, though, are those utilitarian reasons, and through play – as infants, children, and adults – we learn all sorts of things.  In attunement play, for instance, an infant and its parents smile and giggle at each other, coo and talk baby talk, tickle and laugh, and learn how to make connections with others.  When a young cub – whether a lion or a human baby – jumps up and down they’re experiencing the pleasure of their bodies, and learning about gravity and the realities of the physical world.  Object play – banging on pots and pans or playing with dolls (or action figures!) helps with learning how to manipulate that world, and builds eye/hand coordination and all that goes with that.  Social play helps one learn to read, and send, social cues.  (Here’s an interesting thing … in dogs, wolves, and other canids, for instance, there are certain cues that what’s coming is play.  We’ve all seen a dog throw its front legs out, drop its head low, while keeping its back up straight, with its tail wagging.  That’s a clear sign that it wants to play, and any animal that doesn’t follow that up with play, that’s “cheating” or “lying,” faces ostracism from the rest of the pack.  If you say you’re going to play, you’d better play.) 

In fact, play is so important that some social scientists have found a correlation between the amount and quality of play in children and youth and the ability later in life to creatively solve problems and engage successfully with others and the world.  “Recreational deprivation,” as it’s called, has been linked to violent, antisocial adults.  As a rule, mass murderers, for example, seem to have had extremely poor play experiences as kids.

Now … this has been a lot of words about play, and in a moment we’re going to actually do a little playing together (so get prepared), yet there is one more think I want to say about play:  play provides perspective.  Play, playfulness, can be an antidote to the seriousness that can so easily threaten to overtake us.  Why do you think that late night comedians like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, and others are so popular today?  Because they take what’s oh so incredibly seriously – seriously disturbing, seriously infuriating, seriously scary – and they playfully skewer it.  They do what fools have done since time immemorial – taking the powerful down a notch, and in so doing, redistribute that power away from the tyrants and back to those of us who laugh and join in the game.  This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t take serious things seriously.  If that’s all we do, though, we risk becoming angry, bitter, and broken.
In her autobiography, Living My Life, well-known anarchist activist revolutionary Emma Goldman wrote,

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha [Alexander Berkman], a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.
I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy.

There’s a well-known quotation that’s generally attributed to Goldman, which she may well have never said, yet which sums up this sentiment both beautifully and memorably, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

In these days when, perhaps, a little revolution is in order, let us not forget the importance of dancing, laughing, playing.  It may be what gets us through.

Invitation to Play

Warming Up:  We repeat the following words in a call and response style, going faster and faster until we can go no faster.

Flea.  Flea fly.  Flea fly flu.  Vista!  Cumalata cumalta cumalata vista.  Oh, no no, no no de vista.  Eenee meeny decimeny ou wa ou wa o meeny; exameeny salamini ou wa o wah o meeny.  Beep diddle oh den doten bo bo skediten doten.  Yeah.  [spelling is phonetic!]

Literary Mad Libs:  The congregation is asked to call out suggestions of various types of words -- noun, plural noun, adjective, past tense verb, etc. -- which are then placed, in order, into the reading in their appropriate places.  The result (with the words in parenthesis) was then read back to the congregation.

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the (rabbit/horse), 
not a creature was stirring, not even a/an (cucumber). 
The (oceans) were tucked, all snug in their (walnuts), 
while visions of (horrendous) plums danced in their heads. 
Then up on the (Wonder Woman) there arose such a clatter. 
I sprang from my (skateboard) to see what was the matter. 
It was St. Nicholas with his little (ridiculous) belly, 
That shook when he laughed like a bowl full of (funiculars). 
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work 
And filled all the (ministers), then turned with a jerk. 
And laying his (screwdriver) aside of his nose 
And giving a nod, up the (pimple) he rose. 
I heard him exclaim as he (flew) out of sight, 
“(slimy) Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Telling a Story One Sentence at a Time:  The congregation is invited to create a story, with the first person saying only one line, and then passing the microphone to the next person, who will add the next line.

Offering:  The collection was taken with top hats rather than the usual plates, and people blew bubbles during this time.

Closing Words:

“Play exists for its own sake. Play is for the moment; it is not hurried, even when the pace is fast and timing seems important. When we play, we also celebrate holy uselessness. Like the calf frolicking in the meadow, we need no pretense or excuses. Work is productive; play, in its disinterestedness and self-forgetting, can be fruitful.”  — Margaret Guenther in Toward Holy Ground

“We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”  George Bernard Shaw

Pax tecum,


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