What if playing was seen an essential ingredient of a healthy, holy life rather than an “extra” that we get to have when all the work is done? What exactly is play and why is it only for kids? Perhaps play holds clues for us on how to live in harmony in this complicated world.
A sermon given by Rev. Tricia Brennan First Parish Dorchester Dorchester, MA
May 14, 2017
Let’s say you are riding the subway and you get off the train at your destination and as you exit from the underground you have a choice of ordinary stairs or moving stairs- otherwise known as escalators to bring you up. Which do you choose? A question many people face it everyday. Does one take the easy route up, or the route that will give one a little exercise, use my body and heart, be good for my health? Most people take the escalator, let the machine do the climbing for them.
You’ve seen it, I am sure, the escalator packed with people, the stairs empty or maybe a few folks trudging up.
Maybe too, you’ve seen a U-TUBE video that was made of an experiment done to answer the question- what if it was fun to climb the stairs- would more people take the stairs? Overnight in Stockholm, Sweden, a bunch of talented people rigged the stairs so they would sound a musical note when stepped on. Essentially the stairs became a melodic scale. Commuters the next morning now had a choice of taking the silent escalator or making music by walking up a flight of stairs. Suddenly the usual ratio was reversed and it was the escalator that was empty while the stairs that were full of people not just walking up but jumping up, skipping from one stair to the next, going back down a few steps to catch a note so they could form a melody, laughing, surprised, talking to each other, talking to strangers. 66% more people took the stairs than usual, it was fun. Make something fun and people will do it- not exactly huge revelation, I know, but in our play-starved culture, it’s worth exploring.
What is play? There’s a whole lot of dictionary definitions, here’s the one I like best- Play is a pleasurable, apparently purposeless, self-motivated activity. Play has endless forms, is developmentally different depending on our age, and can take us out of our sense of time- it has a timeless quality to it.
Would you agree that we have a shortage of play-time in our lives? I do find there is an inordinate amount of focus on our work, on accomplishment, on not wasting time. Something that is purposeless even if it is pleasurable, can seem hard to justify.
The super-importance of work shows itself though our ordinary language:
We refer to our pleasurable pastime, be it reading a light-weight mystery book, or relaxing in a bubble bath, or purchasing and enjoying a nice bottle of wine as our “guilty pleasures”. There’s something secretive or a little less than okay about these activities, it seems, from our way of talking about them
How’s that working for you?- we often ask someone. An interesting choice of words- not are you enjoying your new job, or your new car, or your program of study- but how’s that working for you, is, as often as not, how the inquiry goes?
Or- and this really makes me laugh- have you ever been in a restaurant, finishing a good meal- and the wait staff comes up to you and ask “are you still working on that?”- referring to your meal. Are you till working on it?- since when has dining out become work?
Stuart Brown, the fella who wrote about the bear and the huskie playing, is a psychiatrist who founded the National Institute for Play. He came to the realization of the importance of play by noting the absence of play in the lives of a studied group of men, imprisoned for murder. They had no recollection of playing as kids and no real sense of what it means to play. Stuart Brown’s curiosity about the place of play in human existence prompted him to leave his self-described workaholic life, and take up the study of play, a topic not much explored in scientific research.
He found that play is really good for us. People who played as kids and keep playing throughout life tend to be more optimistic and trusting, have a developed sense of irony, have compassion and empathy. They are more resilient. People who haven’t experienced play tend to be more rigid, violent, less able to adapt to new situations or come up with creative solutions to problems. They are more depressed.
Though our culture may be very work-centered, research in the past decades shows that we are hard-wired for play. It begins early- in the eye contact between parent and child, the playful sounds and imitations that mothers and fathers make with the babies. In that dance of sounds and sight that happens universally in families, the pleasure part of the brains is stimulated in the parent and child. And the theory goes that this helps the babies brain to develop, and the adult brain too- as well as all the good bonding.
The rough and tumble world of childhood play- rough-housing- teaches empathy. Someone bumps another a little too hard and then remembers what it felt like and will learns to be more aware- just from the give and take nature of play.
And on and on- storytelling builds imagination, sports builds mastery and physical confidence, making music makes you happy and can create a experience of timelessness, reading can take you to other worlds. And so often playing is what we do with friends or how we make friends, and thus it helps form the crucial social bonds that make life meaningful, sturdy and joyous.
I am interested in the connection between play and our spiritual life, between play and God. Is there something about the timelessness of play- that state of being totally engaged while playing, totally happy in the moment- that speaks of eternity, of mystery and wonder, or of something beyond ourselves?
In the Hindu faith there is a strong element of playfulness about life. All creation is called lila, which means the play of the Gods. Hindi god Krisna is the incarnation of divine play. In one Hindu festival held in his honor in Hindu countries, people line up on two sides and throw colored water at each other- how fun is that?
Writer Alan Watts says that a big difference between Hinduism and Christianity is their answer to the question- is it serious? – it being everything- life, creation, the cosmos. Christianity says oh my yes, it’s serious. Hinduism says no- it isn’t serious, it’s lila, it’s play.
Now we here in New England are inheritors of the particularly serious brand of Christianity- The puritans with a Calvinist influence- pretty serious stuff alright. If things weren’t going right for you in your life, it probably was because you were getting what you deserved, and that consequence was the will of God.** There is a lot of that thinking still floating in the air, I think- and it leads to a sense of needing to prove that we are good- in our eyes, in the eyes of others, in the eyes of god perhaps. Needing to prove that you are good gets old and tiring pretty quick- about as far away as can be from the sense of timelessness we can feel when we are deeply engaged in play.
“This elementary wonder is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this (wonder). Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct for sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. A child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.”
We can’t become 3 year olds again, we can’t and shouldn’t want to erase all the intervening years- the struggles and triumphs and sadness and laughter, the life story that belongs to us. But we can recover our youth playfulness. We can bring to our lives a heightened sense of wonder, an amazement at creation’s daily display. We can let play open us to that which is greater than our individual lives and circumstance, that which has echoes of the eternal.
Stuart Brown, he the guru on play- and at 69 years young a great example of how play is essential to living well- says that it is not hard to recover a sense of play in our lives, if we think a little recovery is in order. Remember what you liked to do when you were young, he suggests- remember the feeling of fun and play for its own pleasure. Let the memories lead you. Move your body/Use you body, he encourages, let your body lead you into playfulness.
Here at First Parish Dorchester we’ll all be nourished by maintaining a sense of play in all that we do. There is a lot to get done this year, and next year too during this interim period. If we can keep our play alive, we’ll get through it with grace. Last night the congregation held its annual Gala, a wonderful event, that was meaningful, lovely, successful- and fun. We had a lot of fun.
So much more can be said about play, but, really, play is something to embody right? more than talk about. So let me close with these short poem that I love that so speaks to me of the divine encouragement to play.
“A Suspended Blue Ocean” by 13th century Persian poet Hafez
The sky is a suspended blue ocean.
The stars are the fish that swim. The planets are the white whales
I sometimes hitch a ride on, and the sun and all light
have forever fused themselves into my heart and upon my skin. There is only one rule
on this Wild Playground, for every sign Hafiz has ever seen
reads the same. They all say, “Have fun, my dear; my dear, have fun,
in the Beloved’s Divine Game, O, in the Beloved’s
** This from a sermon given from Rev. Mary Ganz, then at the Eno River UU Fellowship.
© Rev. Tricia Brennan, 2017