Wednesday, June 03, 2020

What If Everyone Understood Play?

We tend to ascribe wisdom to those who have lived longest. And that's valid: the longer someone has lived, the more mistakes they've made, and therefore, the more experience they have. But there is another type of wisdom -- if wisdom is the right word -- with which we are born, and that we proceed to "unlearn" as we get older.

Specifically, I'm thinking about play. We are born knowing not just how to play, but with the wisdom to know that play belongs at the center of our lives. We are born with all the wisdom we will ever need about eating, sleeping, and snuggling as well, but by the time we're all grown up, most of us have forgotten our store infantile wisdom.

We eat too much or not enough. Western society is plagued with poor dietary habits. Most of us don't get enough sleep either, and what we do get is so often interrupted and fitful due to stress and anxiety, not to mention the poor diets and lack of physical exercise. Snuggling might be a little easier for us, especially if we have young children in our lives, but I would assert that most of us don't get enough human touch as we go through our days.

And most adults have no idea what we're talking about when we talk about play. Of sure, they remember play, like a teddy bear they find in the corner of a dusty attic, but for most adults living outside our child-centric bubbles, adults are absolutely ignorant. And unlike our ignorance about diet, sleep, and physical touch, when it comes to play we don't even know that we don't know.

Most adults stopped playing years ago. Indeed, we are actively taught to stop playing in school. We are taught that our highest calling is work, which is to pursue interests imposed upon us by others rather following our own passions. We are taught that play is a waste of time, and if we nevertheless must, it is to be limited to the absolute fringes of our lives. We are taught that a playful mind is a distracted mind and if they can't get it under control on our own, it will be "fixed" for us with drugs. We are taught to keep our hands to ourselves, our eyes on our own papers, and that our classmates are competitors in a chase after accolades in the form of grades and test scores. And just in case we're tempted to play on our own time, like evenings and weekends, there is homework, not to mention the agenda of extracurricular "activities" our parents are pressured to impose upon us lest we be tempted to waste our time playing.

Is it any wonder that as adults, most of us spend our days working, then come home to watch Netflix, read, and knit, all fine activities. But as any infant would tell you if they could speak, that can hardly be considered play.

I'd stopped playing entirely before the birth of our daughter twenty-three years ago. I was lucky enough to be a stay-at-home parent. She re-taught me the joy in studying motes, watching the dance of shadows on a wall, silly songs, and building block towers for the sole purpose of knocking them down again. One moment of epiphany for me was when she was around one-year-old and I found myself with her under the dining room table. I'd not seen the bottom of a table for decades and in that moment I saw everything my adult life was missing.

If you're reading here, you're probably one of the luckier ones. We possess at least some of the wisdom of play because we spend our lives in the company of young children. But for most adults play is just a memory, and memories are notoriously faulty. Most remember play as useless frivolity because that's what they've been systematically taught, having long ago unlearned the wisdom of open-ended, self-selected activity. We've become risk averse, failure averse, mess averse, and we avoid conflict at all cost, having unlearned what every playing child knows: a certain amount of bickering is essential if we are ever to come to agreements with our fellow humans.

The thing we've most thoroughly unlearned as we become adults, however, is that play has no purpose. It is a pure good, like love. It is the practice of living in the moment and that is the ultimate wisdom.

But what if everyone understood play the way children understand play? What if tomorrow everyone woke up knowing what we know?

I imagine a lot of people would quit their jobs. They would look around and see that there isn't a lot of self-selected activity involved in their days. Indeed, most would find that that they rarely get to do what they really want to do.

I imagine large corporations, in particular, would have trouble finding workers to do the thousands of mind numbing, repetitive, backbreaking jobs they must have filled in order to survive.

By the same token, I imagine these newly wise adults would start a lot of new businesses. Entrepreneurship would blossom as we all began to pursue our passions in earnest.

I imagine we would fire all the teachers and replace them with cooks and gardeners and artists and woodworkers and scientists, all pursuing their interests in the company of the neighborhood kids who would spend their days pursuing their own.

I imagine that we would come to see children as fully formed human beings with as much to teach us as vice versa.

Our economic, social, and political lives would change entirely. Everything would change.

And I imagine that we would come to see that Kurt Vonnegut was the great prophet of our times: "We're here on this earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different."

We are born knowing this.


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