For the last few days, I’ve had the chance to take long walks on Holden Beach, and I’ve been enchanted by the interactions of parents with their children: a mother gingerly wading out into the ocean with a baby girl resting in her arms; another mother teaching her toddler son and her seven- or eight-year old daughter to make a turtle-shaped sand sculpture; a father patiently helping his son to learn to throw and catch a Frisbee (I was impressed with how patient he was with wild throws and failed catches); and both a mom and a dad showing their tween-age daughter how to “catch a wave” on a boogie board and ride it to shore. The air was filled with “Watch this!”, “Great job!”, “Try again,” and so much laughter.
Learning to play is as important as learning to work. In 1938, Johan Huizinga wrote a book entitled Homo Ludens (“Playing Man”); among other insights, he claimed that play is an expression of freedom. We play because we are free or because we want to be.
When we claim permission to play, we’re declaring that work and productivity don’t define us. Playing is a lot like honoring the Sabbath: they are both zones of experience in which our identity is independent of our roles and responsibilities.
Play is outside the realm of necessity. We don’t have to play to survive; but fullness of life includes playfulness.
Exercising the imagination; taking part in games; reading, telling, and hearing stories that take us more deeply into life by taking us away from its ordinary guises; exploring the wisdom of nonsense; and just having silly, slapstick fun are far more important for our joy and fulfillment than we sometimes acknowledge.
The capacity to lose ourselves in play is closely related to the ability to lose ourselves in wonder, love, and praise as we worship and pray. Genuine playing and authentic praying both invite and require us to remember that we are children of God, free to love and be loved and, at least while we are playing or praying, also free from the pressures we face and the demands we carry.
A friend and I play racquetball a couple of times a week. We’ve been playing for about 14 years. Early on, we played four times a week. My bout with Multiple Myeloma and the effects of the passing years on our knees and ankles mean we play a couple of times a week.
We’ve declared the racquetball court to be “Las Vegas”: what happens on the court stays on the court. We yell and fuss and sometimes hit the ball harder than we have to hit it; we call these things “therapy.” We compete intensely, as if something other than pride were at stake. We laugh. We tease each other unmercifully, which is actually a generous kind of mercy. If you saw us, you’d think we were greying men acting like children. You’d be right. We’re playing. For an hour or so, we’ve left the cares and tasks of our days outside the door.
Luke’s Gospel tell us that Jesus’ friends once said: “Lord, teach us how to pray.” I’d like to think they also said, “Lord teach us how to play.” I think that both subjects are part of the same course.