Wisdom of Play

One day the great Mulla Nasruddin was invited to deliver a sermon. First thing out of his mouth was, “Do you know what I’m going to say?” The response was NO and at that, he announced, “I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about!” and with that he left. It confused and embarrassed everybody. But maybe they had misunderstood…. So they called him back for the next Sunday, and again, he asked if they knew what he was going to say. This time they replied YES. “Well,” said Nasruddin, “since you already know what I’m going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time!” and left. The people were completely flummoxed. They decided to try one more time and invited the Mulla to speak the following week. He asked the same question as before—“Do you know what I am going to say?”—but it is said, “forewarned is forearmed,” and so half of them answered YES while the other half replied NO. Unfazed, Nasruddin said, “Let the half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the half who don’t,” and he left.

Now I can’t say I wasn’t tempted by this story to ask the same question of you, and let the chips fall where they may. That would be playful, right? In a sermon about the wisdom of playfulness?

But it would perhaps be a very short sermon. Frankly, I’m not sure myself what Islam’s holy fool was trying to get at.

Except for this: whatever it is, he’s playing by a different set of rules than his hearers. Everyone else sees a duck, but he sees a rabbit. Everyone else sees the goblet, but he sees the two faces. He’s coming at things from very different angle.

And that IS part of what makes up the wisdom of play.

Listen to this wonderful story that comes from Boston College psychology researcher Dr. Peter Gray. It puts a smile on my face every time. A few years ago I had an experience that helped me see the difference between play and PLAY. I was invited by two ten-year-old girls, whom I knew well, to play a game of Scrabble.  I’ve played a fair amount of Scrabble in my life and am not bad at it. […] The two girls, in contrast, were complete novices. So, I saw this as an opportunity to teach; I would teach them the rules and some of the strategy of Scrabble. I would be their Scrabble mentor!

But, as it turned out, they taught me something way more important than Scrabble.

They loved the basic situation—taking turns at putting down letters in an organized way on the board, with sets of letters interlocking with other sets in crossword fashion, making interesting designs. But they had no interest at all in keeping score, and the idea of limiting themselves to real, actual words—words that can be found in the dictionary—bored them. They very quickly and effortlessly, with no overt discussion at all, and despite my initial protests, developed their own rules and strategy.

Their unstated but obvious goal, on each turn, was to put down the longest, funniest nonsense word that they could, using as many letters as possible from their rack combined with at least one letter on the board. It had to follow the rules of English phonology (or, as they would have put it, it had to sound like it could be a word), but it could not be an actual word. The object was not to score points but to make each other laugh, and laugh they did! They laughed like only two high-spirited ten-year-old girls who have long been best friends can laugh. Sometimes one would “challenge” the other’s “word,” asking for a definition, and the other would offer an hysterical definition that somehow seemed to fit with the way the “word” sounded; and then they would laugh even harder.  I realized, as I pulled back and watched them and began to laugh along with them, that my way of playing was something like what we usually call work. Their way of playing was play. I realized, too, that I used to play like that, as a child. What had happened to me in the interim?

That’s the story from Dr. Peter Gray. And note how he thinks he’s going to teach the girls a thing or two, but ultimately they pull a Nasruddin on him, and in the end he’s left wondering what the heck’s happened in his life, why he can’t play like THAT, because play like THAT is what aliveness looks like….

Play like THAT is full of all good things…

Says the immortal Greek philosopher Plato, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

And already we are deep into our subject. Part of it has to do with what makes play PLAY—five factors—each of which the story illustrates. One is that the activity is freely entered into. For the two girls playing Scrabble, there’s absolutely no feeling of being pushed into something against their will, and no sense that it’s impossible to quit. If a person feels coerced or forced, it’s not freedom and therefore, it’s not playful.

As for the second factor, think for a moment about how the girls are self-determining. They are free agents and determine their own rules and strategy—-even in the face of Dr. Gray’s protests. Dr. Gray thinks he knows best (just like all the people in our lives who think they know what’s best for us) but it can’t be playful for those girls if they are feeling micromanaged down to the details, and it’s the same for us.

Which takes us immediately to the third factor in all playfulness: imagination. Scrabble, in conventional reality, aims at real, actual words; but the girls aim for nonsense words which have to at least sound real and which are as long and silly as possible. They even invent definitions to fit the way the fake words sound. In the hands of imagination, everything can be different than what it is, or more than what it is. Imagination can even go so far as to find windows where there seemed to be only walls. It’s writer Jules Verne in 1870, in his book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, fantasizing about electric submarines—and eventually science was able to make that fantasy come true. Maybe this is why Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Now what I have just done with this Einstein quote is to suggest the practical usefulness of play. And the usefulness is tremendous. But the irony here is that the emphasis on usefulness actually violates the fourth factor in genuine play: that’s it’s done primarily for the sake of fun and not for any other further purpose. Our Scrabble-playing girls are not endeavoring to create new words and thereby improve the English language. They just want to make each other giggle. They just want to make each other guffaw. They just want to make each other laugh so hard that whatever it is they’re drinking spurts out of their nostrils. That’s the principal thing in anything qualifying as genuine play. Yes, there can be practical positive side-effects. But that’s not principally why you do it.

And finally, the fifth factor in all genuine playfulness: you are completely absorbed. Intensely and utterly: you are focused on what’s happening. You are in the flow. You are in the sweet spot. Above all you are not distressed, you are not afraid of failure, you are not distracted by anything else. The path to learning how might take you through the valley of the shadow of awkwardness, or appearing foolish, but you are not afraid. You give yourself to the process, no matter how messy.

All this is what makes play PLAY. Activity that is freely-entered, it’s self-determining, it’s full of imagination, it’s valuable in itself, and it’s characterized by a mindset of utter absorption.

Play sounds pretty sweet, right?

What’s amazing is how evolution—which is as practical and even ruthless as you can get—seems to love playfulness. There is a reason why a puzzle game like Candy Crush Saga [who are my Candy Crush Saga addicts in the room? you know who you are] has inspired players to spend $1.3 billion dollars in 2014 alone, with the dollars used towards game purchases like extra lives, extra moves, color bombs, lollipop hammers, and gold bars. There’s a reason, and it’s not moral turpitude.

It’s because play develops your mind and keeps it sharp.

It’s because play can provide safe outlets for releasing aggressive impulses—who hasn’t witnessed a generous, sweet friend at the game board turn into Donald Trump?

It’s because play of the specifically risky sort (like climbing heights, going fast, chasing and being chased, wrestling, wandering and getting lost) teach kids how to regulate fear and anger—and when risky play declines, emotional disorders in children increase.

There’s a reason why we play….

It’s because play teaches people how to take turns, which is nothing less than the basis of civilization.

It’s because play gives people the opportunity to connect and socialize—this is why video games never killed off the more traditional board games which, when you think about it, have the quality of a campfire about them, around which people gather and become friends.

It’s because play energizes the imagination and can open doors to new insights and connections.

The reasons for why evolution selects for playfulness go on and on because, very simply, there are so many things that human beings must learn to claim their full humanity. “An amazing fact of human nature,” says Dr. Gray, “is that even 2-year-olds know the difference between real and pretend. A 2-year-old who turns a cup filled with imaginary water over a doll and says, ‘Oh oh, dolly all wet,’ knows that the doll isn’t really wet. It would be impossible,” Dr. Gray says, “ to teach such young children such a subtle concept as pretense, yet they understand it. Apparently, the fictional mode of thinking, and the ability to keep that mode distinct from the literal mode, are innate to the human mind.”

There is nothing of moral turpitude in this.

There is only nature.

Nevertheless, just like Dr. Gray in the Scrabble story, we might find ourselves remembering how we used to play like the two girls played—how we used to be able to get into a Nasruddin space—but no longer. Our lives have gone contrary to nature. What has happened?

Well, think about the sound of fun. The sound of fun is LOUD. And when you are holding pain, you don’t want to hear anything LOUD. “Children,” I was constantly told growing up, “should be seen but not heard.” But it’s not really about kids. It’s about adults with trauma hangovers and they can’t bear fun happening around them and so they kill it wherever they find it.

It’s not hard, after all, to explain how our lives have gone contrary to nature. Adult pain, adult fear. Evolution has designed children to know innately the difference between real and pretend, and so one day you catch your son playing cops and robbers with a toy gun and he is shooting that gun for all it’s worth and it scares you to death because you KNOW all about gun violence and (as a parent) you KNOW that your kid’s behaviors right now might be an indication of an enduring trait (as opposed to just a phase). Which one it is—well, that you DON’T know. So you worry. You are a parent. That’s what parents do.

Our lives go contrary to nature. But it’s not just about parents and children.

If playfulness involves freedom to enter into and to leave, think of all the ways in which you might be tied to a position you can’t afford to leave, or to a marriage, or to something else. Recently someone told me about a job they were tied to with “golden shackles.” Good money but it’s soul killing. Ugh.

If playfulness involves the ability of choosing exactly how you will play, think of all the ways in which people of all ages are micromanaged—at school, at work, at home. For example, in some schools, children come home every day with a color that indicates what their behavior has been like that day. No slack at all. Every day you are judged. Parents, every day, have to deal with it. Ugh.

If playfulness involves doing something just for fun, think of all the messages we receive about getting on track, growing up, getting a life. Don’t get that degree in philosophy! Don’t get that degree in studio art! What are you thinking? How are you going to make any money with degree like that? Ugh.

If playfulness involve full absorption in what you are doing without any distress or pressure, just watch the evening news and allow the pain of the world to pour in and that will make you feel plenty distracted and plenty distressed. Ugh.

If playfulness involves imagination, just think of all the ways in which the world wants us to be serious and literalistic. All the literalism and conservatism out there that makes religion, for example, shallow and uncreative and violent. Ugh.

If we could just flip the joylessness script for a moment….

If we could just channel Nasruddin even a little bit.

Muslims say, “Take one step towards God and God takes seven steps towards you.” “Walk to God and God comes running.” If playfulness is anything, it is God energy stirring in us!

We want to take that one step, we want to start walking….

There’s a fascinating finding in developmental psychology that I just can’t resist sharing even though we are near the end and all the preaching professors say, “Don’t introduce something new near the end!” But rules schmools. You gotta hear this.

According to classic developmental theory, children under 10 or 11 years old simply do not have the conceptual ability to solve arguments like the following:

All cats bark

Muffins is a cat

Does Muffins bark?

When British researchers,” says Dr. Gray, “put syllogisms like this to young children in a serious tone of voice, the children answered as [classic theory would predict.] They said things like, ‘No, cats go meow, they don’t bark.’ They acted as if they were unable to think about a premise that did not fit with their real-world experiences. But, when the researchers presented the same problems in a playful tone of voice, using words that made it clear that they were talking about a pretend world, children as young as 4 years old solved the problems easily, and even many 2-year-olds solved them! They said, ‘Yes, Muffins barks.’” “Now think of it,” says Dr. Gray: “Four-year-olds in play easily solved logic problems that they were not supposed to be able to solve until they were about 10 or 11 years old!”

Now isn’t that amazing? How everything changes when we shift from a serious tone of voice to a playful tone of voice?

Yes, BUT, we say…

The joylessness script runs so deep….

Just taking that one step, just starting to walk, can feel so hard…

The other day I was in Marshall’s looking for even more silly socks to wear on a Sunday morning, because I want to be playful with you, and there were kids playing chase, and they were laughing and carrying on and it was the sound of fun (LOUD!) and I just wanted them to SHUT UP, it had been a long day, I was upset about things, and there I was—being contrary to the nature that surges within me and within you and wants playfulness, wants us to be alive and vital, wants us to feel charged up with the electrical charge of the soul.

Did I think I could solve things by being a grinch? I think I did.

But again and again, the playful approach is the powerful one. It releases 4-year-olds to solve problems supposedly impossible for them to solve. And maybe the playful approach can release us to solve whatever is hard for us.

A little bit of Nasruddin can go a long way.