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Christians need a sense of play for than vigilance


We stomp through the door, snow shaking down the back of my jacket, ice balls clinging to the dog’s wet fur like shells tangled in seaweed. Through frozen lips, I try to describe the beauty of dogs running loose in a big, empty park, galloping in great wide circles through two feet of snow, catching snowballs on a leap, rolling over on their backs and making snow angels with their wagging tails.

My husband grins and brings towels, but his step is heavy; he’s not catching our mood.

Turns out he’s fretting because he “played” too much on Saturday and now feels the pile of chores and errands and projects rebuking him, harsh as a Puritan magistrate.

I lose patience.

“Why do you think we were put on this earth -- to do lots of chores? When you’re on your deathbed, do you think you’ll regret the few times you cut loose and had fun with your friends, and wish you’d put up shelves in the garage instead?”

He gives me a rueful smile and goes downstairs to screw in light bulbs. Deep down, Andrew sees play as frivolity, a momentary escape from life’s worthy purposes, justifiable only if you’ve finished all the day’s jobs first.

I am finally beginning to see play as one of the worthiest purposes of all, every bit as important as work, responsibility and daily obligation.

The first clue came in my 20s, comparing notes with friends on what we regretted about our teenage years. The answer streaked to the surface like a diver out of air: I regretted not being wild. An obedient Catholic girl in a navy-pleated, drop-waist jumper, I’d always aimed to please. As a result, I abided by the rules, took hardly any risks at all.

Didn’t want to hurt the teachers’ feelings. Didn’t want to worry my mom.

In early adulthood, I grew bored with docility -- but it was too late for keg parties. So I decided to compensate for my tame youth by romanticizing gentle anarchy, holding up bohemian life as the ultimate freedom, applauding the wild play that thumbed its nose at bourgeois rules.

That palled, too, because I had the structure backwards. Now I know that play -- whether it comes in the form of sports or adventure, eros or art -- has very definite rules.

Those rules focus and engage and absorb us, silencing time’s relentless ticking and erasing anxious self-consciousness. Energy flows smoothly outward from the center, connecting us to the world in which we play. The result is not anarchy, but transcendent order, with play bringing its own temporary perfection.

Does this mean play is unfree? Ah, no. There is great freedom in agreeing on the limits. And play must always, by definition, be freely chosen; if it is assigned or prescribed, it becomes dour duty.

Paging through the poems and sayings I’ve painstakingly copied over the years -- hoping to somehow inscribe them in my poor conditioned pea-brain -- I realize how long I’ve known I needed to lighten up. Plato, says my notebook, insisted, “Life must be lived as play.” He said, “Man is God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him.”

G.K. Chesterton noted that “angels fly because they take themselves lightly,” and Oscar Wilde pronounced life “much too important to be taken seriously.” Even the Talmud, sober tome though it be, reminds us that “man shall be called to account for all permitted pleasures he failed to enjoy.”

And Jesus didn’t leave any tips on how to get your chores done on time. He gave every ounce of love and energy -- but then he leaned back and let Mary Magdalene rub perfumed oil into his tired feet. He played ever so lightly with the Pharisees, he played when he spoke his parables, he played with his disciples’ fears and idiosyncrasies, teasing them until they relaxed, sure they were known at their core and loved regardless.

Christian folk today don’t spend their time puzzling over impish Zen koans, and it’s been centuries since we stood on our heads like St. Francis. Instead, we show the world how serious we are and keep vigilant watch for sacrilege. We assume that if you’re playing publicly, you must be mocking your subject.

Reminds me of all those dreadful playground games, when we had to fight each other for turf or points or tokens, and somebody always had to lose and feel the defeat.

For me, play isn’t about competition at all. It’s about risk. Sometimes the thrilling tell-all or go-for-it risk of Truth or Dare (one of the few games I did like) and sometimes the mellower risk of imagining something different, expressing something that’s always lived deep inside you, or creating something that’s never quite existed before.

A good marriage is play, building a tree house where two separate minds can climb above the world’s demands, let down their guard, use a secret handshake, talk in secret code.

Good liturgy is choreographed play, teaching us about God by prying open our senses, minds and hearts with beauty, ritual and surprise.

And here, for my Puritan husband, is the paradox of play: Behind its purposelessness lies deep and deliberate purpose.

In her book Deep Play, naturalist Diane Ackerman reminds us that ants don’t play; they’re programmed from birth to do what they must. But humans and pups and chimps and those wondrous wrinkly oxymorons, baby elephants, play incessantly. It’s our way of testing ourselves and our surroundings, keeping flexible enough to solve unforeseen problems as they arise. “The more an animal needs to learn in order to survive,” concludes Ackerman, “the more it needs to play.”

High utility, indeed.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2000