04 January 2019

Let's play

Fred Rogers at work
I heard Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding give a lecture at Carleton University sometime in the early 1970's. I can't remember much now about that lecture except that, to my surprise and delight, he argued for the importance of play. Years later, I heard that his wife, sociologist Elise Boulding, sometimes complained that when Kenneth was playing with their children, he would sometimes end up playing more with their toys than with the kids themselves.

Kenneth and Elise thought that both children and adults needed to play. In Kenneth's lecture, he said that it was actually a child's job to play. To the extent that the child inside us never dies, I hope that I too may be permitted to play.

Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation defends play as a serious subject. Beyond that book, which I read during my high school years, and the Bouldings' lectures and books, I've honestly not studied play all that much! Drawing from these serious thinkers, I conclude that play ...
  • involves experimentation with objects, role-playing, sensations,
  • has an element of recreation and non-compulsion, which is part of its attraction,
  • gives pleasure through successful creation, problem-solving, construction, or progression of some kind,
  • can be solitary (even 100% imaginary) or in a group,
  • can involve a template of some sort (such as a game) or be utterly spontaneous,
  • can be earthy, cerebral, both, or somewhere in between --
... all of which seems important to me and potentially everyone I know. For children, it's also part of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 31), which to my non-surprise, the U.S. is the only member of the United Nations not to have ratified.

Play relates to another of my favorite themes: ecstasy. I define ecstasy as an experience of joy that is so total that it verges on self-abandonment. And, similarly to play, I think that everyone is entitled to ecstasy, although we may experience it very differently according to our temperaments and situations. And some of us probably come from cultures or families where it wasn't acceptable to welcome or expect total joy. Be serious! Be productive! Be overworked (but complain about it, too, and be sure that you're just as overworked as those you overwork with)! Be trapped in shame! All of this nonsense is inconsistent with being creatures whom God loved into existence.

The Sassy Animals (posing in my room
at Woodbrooke, Birmingham, UK)
This happy stuff  is not just a matter of personal gratification, reserved for those who are economically and socially secure. In a faith community with a healthy division of labor, the mystic who testifies to the importance of play and ecstasy is in partnership with the prophet who wants to know what is preventing others from experiencing these good things.

May your 2019 be full of play! (I know mine will be; Judy bought me a three-headed dragon for Christmas, to add to our collection of puppets and sassy animals.)

A happy coincidence involving the science fiction writer David Brin:

For most of the last three weeks, my every free moment has been taken up by reading Brin's novel Existence. It's not that I'm a slow reader, but my experience with his book was similar to my experience of Liudmila Ulitskaya's Daniel Stein, Interpreter, another amazing novel that involved a similar diversity of voices and viewpoints and platforms (in her case: letters, diaries, transcripts, reports). In Brin's case, our planet was gripped by the arrival, only a generation or two in the future, of messages from extraterrestrial civilizations (or were they hoaxes!?), and the novel's many different voices reflected many different hopes and fears and political attitudes among earth's population. As a result of these extraterrestrial messages, a long pause in humanity's efforts at space exploration comes to an end.

More than this I cannot say -- only that Brin's sampling of the reality of beleaguered humanity -- global warming's rising sea levels, and the contrasts in lifestyles between the involuntary nomads of poverty and the thrill-seeking nomads of the ultra-wealthy (remarkably similar to theologian Samuel Escobar's predictions) add to the book's realism.

With each of these novels -- Ulitskaya's and Brin's -- I frequently had to put the book down and think about what I'd written, or let my imagination play with the characters and situations, putting myself in their places. Sometimes I had to reach for a bit of nonfiction for sheer relief!

David Brin: "... It's theologically significant
that we're so good at this...."
I finished the last page of Brin's book on Monday evening and turned my attention to NASA TV, which at that point was streaming the New Year's Eve Party for Little Worlds at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, culminating in the countdown to the NASA space probe New Horizons' closest approach to the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule.

At one point during the evening, a number of congratulatory messages were spliced into the coverage -- among them, a message from David Brin. Having used the broad canvas of his novel to give us a picture of what it might be like for earthlings to reach out beyond the planets of our solar system, he was congratulating the team that was, in real life, doing just that.

Sarah Kaplan's vivid reporting on the Ultima Thule fly-by mission: the fly-by itself and the first fruits of the mission. She also reports on another New Year's success: a Chinese spacecraft carrying a rover lands on the far side of the moon.

Two of my earlier posts relating to ecstasy: in worship and in music.

A declaration of faithful disobedience from pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Covenant Church, Chengdu, China. (Thanks to @ChristyWimber for the reference.)

Adria Gulizia on diversity -- racial and theological.

Jo Firestone: Tell me one more time what to do about grief. (Recommended by Kate Bowler.)

Weather has not been the ideal persuader for the reality of climate change and global warming, but as David Leonhardt points out, that may be changing. And the stakes couldn't be higher:
I wanted to write my last column of 2018 about the climate as a kind of plea: Amid everything else going on, don’t lose sight of the most important story of the year.

I know there was a lot of competition for that title, including some more obvious contenders, like President Donald Trump and Robert Mueller. But nothing else measures up to the rising toll and enormous dangers of climate change. I worry that our children and grandchildren will one day ask us, bitterly, why we spent so much time distracted by lesser matters.
Meduza's catalog of the very best Russian independent journalism in 2018.

More of James Harman's visit to the BluesMoose Cafe in Groesbeek, Netherlands.


Jay T. said...

I've a calling and am spending a career in play with others. Early on, I was blessed to be referred to the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga. In his classic book Homo Ludens (1955), he offered this definition of play: "a free activity standing quite consciously outside 'ordinary' life as being 'not serious,' but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.

It's when we do allow ourselves to be drawn and then stand outside our ordinary way of thinking that we find ecstasy, union and metanoia, enter the realm of God. I find play a way at least as accessible to this as silence, singing or liturgy.

Too much verbiage and perhaps too intense a response. Thanks, Johan for raising the subject and prompting me to remind myself of this all.

Johan Maurer said...

Jay! Thanks for introducing me to Johan Huizinga! I found a PDF copy of the book you mentioned. I'm going to puzzle through what he might have meant by his statement that "Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it." By "profit" I think he means something other than "benefit," of which play offers us a lot.

New Year's blessings!