Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Job

It's been at least 20 years since I last slid down a slide. I sometimes sit in the swings at school, but if I actually swing it is only to go back and forth a couple of times before getting off. Likewise, I don't roll down grassy hills, play on merry-go-rounds, or enjoy seesaws. I did all of those things as a boy, of course, enthusiastically, and I have fond memories, but they have lost their savor in adulthood. Indeed, some of those things actually cause me pain and nausea. No, I've grown up, finally, and these are children's games.

That doesn't mean I've stopped playing, it's just that as an adult, I've learned what I need to learn from playgrounds. Last Friday, my wife and I went out dancing. I like figuring out what my body can do, what our bodies can do, especially to unfamiliar music. That's one of the ways I play as an adult. There are some video games I like; I like messing around in the kitchen; I'm a dilettante woodworker; I've even learned to enjoy travel, even if it is sometimes very hard for me. In many ways, when my life is working the way it should, it's all play: I'm doing what I want to be doing, trying things I haven't tried before, following my curiosity, meeting new people, failing, trying again, bickering, cooperating, sharing, living in the moment, and ultimately learning new things both about myself and my world.

That is the purpose of play, of course; it's our education instinct at work, but it's easy to lose track of it as an adult in our culture. We tend to see being an adult as being "responsible," which all too often means playing it safe, planning ahead, covering our bases, reducing risks, being reasonable, and avoiding, at all costs embarrassing mistakes. As a result, we learn less, becoming increasingly calcified in our habits and opinions, a vicious cycle that tends to manifest in doughy bodies, inflexible minds, and a world-weary suspicion that we've seen it all. One would think that a guy like me, someone who spends his days around children engaged in play, would be immune to it, but you would be wrong: just because the people around me are playing, it doesn't mean I am.

Just as play is the work of childhood, it is also the real work of adulthood. Our job in this life is not the thing we do to make money, it is not even the things we do for joy. Our real job, the job that we will never finish in this lifetime, is to learn a little more, to seek enlightenment, which is, I think, the adult word for education.

So while I'm not necessarily playing with the children I teach, if I'm doing it right, I am still playing: I'm in the here and now, observing, taking notes, loving, and trying to understand what I see and hear as these play experts slide down their slides and swing in their swings. Often, their moments of epiphany, and there are dozens every day on the playground if we only really pay attention, are also our moments of epiphany, one leading to the next in the open-ended nature of play. When I'm not doing that, when I'm watching the clock, when I become a mere manager of activities, I've forgotten that ongoing enlightenment is the job. But when I remember, that's when I'm an adult who plays.

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