We are Made for Play
What does it mean to play as a spiritual act? How can we change our perceptions of work and leisure to embrace the importance of playing? Join us to explore playfulness and playing, and how to integrate more play into your life.
Reading; Madeline L’Engle
“Far too many people misunderstand what *putting away childish things* means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I'm with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up, then I don't ever want to be one. Instead of which, if I can retain a child's awareness and joy, and *be* fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be grownup.”
Sermon; "We are Made for Play"; Heather Petit
It might seem counterintuitive to talk about play in the world we’re living in right now.
But part of our resistance is about not losing hope, or strength, or stamina.
The San Diego Free Press just published a story a couple weeks ago about how authoritarianism thrives on demoralizing us. How our depression and paralysis and panic reduces our effectiveness. I’m not saying it’s not depressing or awful or terrifying.
Just this: Especially if you are a person with a marginalized identity:
- Surviving is an act of resistance.
- Thriving is an act of outright rebellion.
- Playing? Playing is a world-changer.
Now what do I mean by playing? Merriam Webster defines Playing as either participating in a sport, or: ‘engaging in activity for enjoyment and recreation RATHER THAN a serious or practical purpose.’
A lot of us have ‘carved out’ some kind of play in one or another area of life. It’s considered a good counterbalance, right? A way to keep yourself whole when the serious and practical can be such a drain. Maybe you play an instrument, or sing. Or maybe you make art or write poetry. Maybe you play golf, or basketball, or softball. Maybe you longboard, or rollerskate, or dance or swim. Maybe you love tea parties or dressup with kids or grandkids or other young people. Maybe you still love tag and always loved board games, or play D&D, or play computer games.
All these things are good. They’re playing. And yes, I’m going to include the computer games in that, too.
But what if someone told you that they play all day long, and get paid for it. That their job, their every day get up and go to work job, is all play. Gut level, what’s your response? I know intellectually, I think that’s awesome. But I still kind of feel lumpy about it. Should you really be playing all day? Work should be.. work. Practical, pragmatic, serious. I have been stuck in this over and over.
That definition again.
Play is on one side, and serious and practical is on the other.
But joy and thriving are resistance. Play is resistance.
If we’re going to fight in the resistance, we have to commit to not being demoralized, as much as we commit to doing the work. We don’t grow up being taught how to do this. But I think we can figure it out.
As a culture, we set it up. Right there in the definition of play. Play is not serious. Play is not practical. It’s not something we think people should do all the time.
It’s fun, after all, and that is its own reward. Too much fun makes us suspicious. Someone must be getting away with something if their life is full of playing. They must be not really doing anything serious or important. I wonder why that is?
Now, heads-up, I’m going to talk about theology here for a bit. The peculiar relationship we have to work and play owes a lot to Calvinism, and that carries on right through to Cotton Mather. Cotton Mather was a widely known Puritan minister, prolific author, and a key moral theologian to the colonies. Over 400 books and publications, and a wide audience consuming his words. His cultural influence is still pretty clear today.
Let me condense some of that Puritan morality for us:
- Joy from your physical being and your creative talents is something that belongs to God, not you – if you enjoy what you do too much, you’re probably stealing glory from God, and you should be ashamed.
- Don’t show off that God-given talent. Pride in your accomplishments? Not okay.
- Don’t flaunt what brings YOU joy, it’s not YOUR joy after all.
- It doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to everyone else.
- Focus on how useful you can be to your community and your deity.
- That is how you should spend all your time.
- Every day. In constant usefulness.
It’s a really bad theology. God made us for work. Be useful or be without value. (and this makes our first principle pretty counter-cultural, doesn’t it?) And if somehow that God of Usefulness bestowed other gifts or talents upon us? Use those but never take credit. And don’t show too much pleasure in our playing.
We wouldn’t want to rob God of God’s happiness. After all, if you have joy from your God-given gifts, God does not. Don’t want to be a Joy thief. Stealing GOD’s joy. Tsk.
Hmm. In this theology, playing is a zero-sum game with God. And we’re the losers. Play is not to be embraced, it is to be displaced. Be of service, and be happy only that God is happy.
I am not a fan of Puritan theology. So what’s the alternative? What is the other option when our very definition of play is so deeply enmeshed with a binary of practicality versus joy? We can have delight, or we can make ourselves useful. Can’t do both. Play is never useful, and useful is never play.
Perhaps we wipe out that old definition and start over.
Let’s pause for a moment. Close your eyes, and imagine children playing, full of joy and delight. Maybe laughing, maybe just quietly glowing with that deep satisfaction we get when we have played really well. Picture them in your mind. When they’re full of joy and delight, what are they doing? Maybe you are imagining an infant playing with their toes. Or maybe your mental image is of a toddler playing with a stick or a huge cardboard box. Maybe it’s a preschooler rolling in the grass while puppies wiggle over them, a pile of wagging tails and squeals of laughter. And maybe also, someone might be thinking of a child’s uncontainable delight after they learned to do something new, and they’ve GOT IT.
Engrossed in the action, the delight of movement or interaction, in pretend or turn taking or physical exertion, do you notice what these children aren’t doing? They’re not assessing their performance. They aren’t observing their form. They aren’t holding onto how good they are or how much better they should be by now. They simply aren’t watching themselves at all. They’re just doing the thing they’re doing, completely. All out. All them. Present embodied. All in. This is my definition of playing. Playing is being present and doing, without watching myself.
Daoism is one of my favorite sources of wisdom. One of the principles of philosophical Daoism is that we start out with some pretty solid functions for being present and full of joy, but we are also really prone to conditioning. We take on the rules and expectations of our families and cultures, and internalize those, and then express them on ourselves and others.
We limit and control what is okay and what is not based on what we were taught. Even those of us who came from pretty solid decent loving families have conditioning that doesn’t serve us well. Everyone does. Part of becoming ourselves, according to Daoism is overcoming conditioning in order to be whole. Learning where to stop putting up a wall, stop saying we aren’t allowed. Practicing giving ourselves permission to live fully and with joy. This is why we go to therapy, right? Unplug all those rules about what is allowed and what is good enough, and all the ways we judge ourselves. I like to use Daoism as an inoculation against Puritan theology, like this:
- Part of overcoming our particular cultural conditioning is giving ourselves permission to play, whether we are doing something frivolous or pragmatic.
- Part of overcoming our conditioning is staying present in ourselves when we do whatever it is we are doing. Whether that’s serious or “merely” entertaining.
- Part of overcoming our cultural training is letting go of measuring or comparing or competing with ourselves or others when we are in the middle of doing anything.
Let me repeat that. Give ourselves permission to play. Be present in ourselves while we do what we do. Let go of the self-judgment – stop constantly assessing our worth.
Do I do this?
Like everyone, sometimes I forget and sometimes I just can’t get myself sorted out, but I have learned how to play when I do serious important things. Playing doesn’t make it not serious or important. Take preaching, for example. I’m going into ministry. So I kind of think that preaching is important. It’s serious business. And. I have never stood up in front of a congregation and had everything go perfectly. Never. The very first time I preached, the chalice kept going out. I could keep all of the joy and delight out of it and just seriously judge myself for every too-human moment. Watch myself, like I am performing on a stage in front of me.
To watch myself, I have to stop being up here, doing what I am doing. It’s so much better when I just do what I am doing and don’t watch myself. Fumble something? Okay, maybe I learn I need to practice that skill more, but in the moment, it’s just me, being. Yes, important work. Also, play.
So here’s another exercise…Think of a time when you were doing something ‘useful’ or ‘practical’ where you were actually more playing than working and being serious, but still doing the useful thing. If you can’t think of a time when that happened, think of what it might feel like to be free of fear and judgment and fully present while you do something useful and important. No self-observation to check how others might see you.
Just doing the thing you are doing.
How did that feel?
I used to think that getting into that flow, ‘being in the zone’ – which is just playing – was something that just happened when we were lucky. But it turns out that it’s something we can practice. And we don’t have to do it alone. We can help each other with this. We can give each other permission to play. And really, I mean we can actually use the words. “You have permission.” When we were kids, we didn’t have to give ourselves permission, and we didn’t expect to have to ask permission. Watch a child playing, and you’ll see it.
They already gave themselves permission. They might let you know their displeasure if you disagree with that permission. They are all the way there. Present in their bodies, and doing the thing they’re doing. And when they’re really playing, all in, you won’t see them judging whether they grabbed their toes right, or laughed loud enough when the puppies licked them.
This is our native function. Playing. Before we learned how not to. Before we learned that delight is not for serious and not for practical. Before we learned to be vaguely ashamed of being present to joy. We started out playing by doing whatever we did, without watching ourselves do it. But getting past the conditioning, sometimes we need some help.
So here’s an opportunity to be radicals. Here’s another chance to be effective in our resistance. Here’s a way to be subversive.
Last exercise here. And this is the hard one. You have to talk to your neighbors. I want you to turn to the people around you, and say “I give you permission to play” <wait> And now, I want you to say out loud, to yourself, “I have permission to play”
Surviving is an act of resistance. Thriving is an act of outright rebellion. Playing is a world-changer.
This is our inherent capability. This is fundamental to who we are. We are made for play. So let’s play.
Amen and blessed be.