The Game of Life

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I traveled to downstate Illinois recently to visit a friend and her 8-year-old daughter, Lillian. Early one morning, Lillian and I were sitting in the living room as she waited for her mother to drive her to school.

Lillian asked me if I was planning to stay another night. I said I wasn’t sure. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Do you have plans for later?’ Lillian scrunched up her face. ‘I’m a kid,’ she blurted out. ‘Do you think I have plans?’ Then she added, as if to emphasize what really goes on in her household, ‘My mother has plans.’ Like most children, Lillian does not have a day planner or a Rolodex. Her life is lived in the moment, filled with adventure and imagination, silliness and laughter. Despite rules, responsibilities, and motherly planning, a child’s world is usually simmering with fun, ready to bubble up at a moment’s notice.

Children are the masters of play. It’s what they do. It’s also the way they learn, how they acquire cognitive and motor skills. As adults we still play, but less spontaneously. We tend to schedule our play time. When, that is, we can find time to schedule.

In fact, leisure time has dramatically eroded in recent decades, down to about 16.5 hours a week, report the editors of the Harvard Health Letter. This is in part because of a rise in single-parent and two-wage-earner families, with all their attendant chaos. But it’s also because a lot of us are working more—about a month more per year than was the norm in the 1960s.

Fifty years ago, commentators wondered what we were going to do with all the extra leisure time generated by the ‘automation revolution.’ But the technological good life has instead fostered a national epidemic of overwork, stress, and too little rest. As many as 30 percent of Americans say they experience great stress almost daily. Sleep disorders and exhaustion have become all too common.

Hurry Up and Play
Not surprisingly, the rush of modern life has begun to spill over, even into the ways we play. I thought about this recently on a leisurely bike ride along the Evanston lakefront. Around me zoomed bikers hunched over sleek machines, dressed like Flash Gordon. I imagined they were officially playing while simultaneously getting in their prescribed 30 minutes of three-times-weekly aerobic exercise. No wasting the day here.

Later, as I drove down to Chicago’s North Side, I passed a storefront window of men and women running on treadmills in a space that looked like it once might have been home to a dry cleaner or a restaurant. I admired their efforts but couldn’t help wondering whether a judge had sentenced them to grimly sweat it out in public.

It’s hard to blame people. Our high-tech life combined with the accelerated pace and insecurity of the modern workplace have fostered a culture that seems to be always working, always rushed, always (at least electronically) connected. In this environment play becomes frivolous. Yet we do manage to play. Being human, we just can’t help it.

Lenore Terr, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of Beyond Love and Work: Why Adults Need to Play (Scribner, 1999), argues that play is crucial at every stage of life. In play, we discover pleasure, cultivate feelings of accomplishment, and acquire a sense of belonging. When we play, we learn and mature and—no small matter—find an outlet for stress. ‘Play is a lost key,’ Terr writes. ‘It unlocks the door to ourselves.’

When we’re in a state of intense play, our cares and worries tend to vanish. Kayaking down a river, playing golf, or thoroughly engrossed in a good novel, we feel pleasurably alive, lighthearted. But play can also take us to new heights of conscious awareness. Athletes refer to moments when they’re in ‘the zone,’ when body, mind, and spirit acquire a kind of transcendent rhythm and performance is at a peak. Essayist Diane Ackerman, borrowing a phrase from 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, describes such moments in terms of ‘deep play,’ when, ‘levered by ecstasy, one springs out of one’s mind.’

In the zone of deep, transcendent play there is calm but also focused readiness. Emotions are primed and ready for release. It is a state not unlike a kind of simulated anxiety attack, say researchers, but without the adrenaline and endocrine responses that normally accompany a real emergency.

Such moments of heightened awareness represent what University of Chicago researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described as a state of ‘flow,’ when a person becomes so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Awareness of the task at hand acquires a kind of meditative brilliance. Mindfulness zeroes in like a laser beam. Everything feels in harmony. In the flow, we feel satisfied.

But the benefits of play are not limited to moments of peak performance. We can find satisfaction in subtle, everyday routine as well. In her book, Deep Play (Random House, 1999), Ackerman describes the rapture of standing among a ‘vast city-state’ of emperor penguins in Antarctica.

Yet she also discovers a transcendent, if not quite so exotic, pleasure in bicycling through her neighborhood or gardening in the back yard. Play is infinitely open-ended in its expression; one person’s drudgery can be another’s ecstasy. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (HarperCollins, 1991), Csikszentmihalyi tells the story of a 60-year-old factory worker named Joe who lived on Chicago’s South Side. Joe built railroad cars in a huge hangar. Conditions there were harsh, unprotected as it was from Chicago’s extremes of weather. And Joe, who had only a fourth-grade education, was on the low rung of the factory.

Yet, Csikszentmihalyi notes, Joe was one of the happiest people he had ever met. At work he was exactly where he wanted to be. He had no desire to be a foreman because he only wanted to fix the machinery, which he did better than anyone else.Joe’s passion for fixing things didn’t end at work. At home he had built a rock garden with an underground sprinkler and a lighting system that created rainbows in the mist. In the evenings, Joe and his wife could sit on their porch surrounded by rainbows. He had made of his life one seamless expression of a particular passion—building and fixing things. He was completely absorbed in his interests. In his living and in his working, Csikszentmihalyi concludes, Joe was a man who knew how to play.

Let’s Pretend
I once watched Lillian and her friend Krissy play with dolls and a large wooden doll house. Each of them alternately introduced a theme, such as ‘Pretend we’re baking a pie for your brother’s birthday, but he hasn’t come home yet, and I’m the mother and I’m worried.’ A few minutes of this scenario would follow, eventually to be punctuated by the two words that signaled time for a change, ‘Pretend that . . .’ and after some tussle negotiating the details, they’d be off on a new scenario of fun and fantasy.

I was struck by how thoroughly engaged they were—and how I envied them. If, as it is said, children think heaven is being an adult and adults think heaven is being a child, then in that moment their world seemed like heaven to me. The way they played was so natural, so complete.

I say, let’s pretend we’ve created a world where we all work reasonable schedules with plenty of time to laugh and play and just enjoy each other. Let’s pretend we’ve let go of our worries about money and power or whatever we think we want that we don’t have. Let’s pretend we’ve created a less strife-torn world, one in which we’ve learned to relax more and mistreat each other less.

I say, let’s pretend, let’s rediscover what any child knows about the truth of living in the moment. And how wonderful it is to be fully human, fully alive. Who knows? If we play it for all it’s worth, we might just make it happen.


Originally published in Utne Reader (March/April 2001).

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