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We Need Play! Seriously!

Sister Doreen’s Reflections

“The opposite of play isn’t work; it’s depression. The adult  play deficit is becoming a public health crisis.” (Stuart Brown, psychiatrist and play researcher).

This was the title of an article I was reading in a Geographic magazine, written by Sadie Dingfelder. Sadie is a science journalist. It caught my attention. The article began by saying that “adults tend to dismiss play as silly or childish, but having fun may be fundamental to our survival.”

In Benedictine spirituality feasting is a divine imperative. It says “thou shalt not ignore the joys of life”.

Holy leisure is the foundation of contemplation and contemplation is the ability to see the world as God sees the world. In our Rule of Life in the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine it is written that balance of life is important, and the components of that balance are equal measures of prayer, work, and leisure.

In the article that I referred to, they made the comment that most adults have suppressed their natural play instinct, and it is causing all kinds of problems for ourselves, our children, and our planet. I think that we have all watched children and adults playing, and we have probably all done some playing ourselves. I have found myself concerned about this aspect of my own life, and so began to ponder the place of play and the importance of play in my own life. In our rather workaholic lifestyle of today, play, the use of leisure time to laugh and play, can take a very small and out of balance place in our lives.

The article pointed out several important contributions that play makes to our health and wellbeing: it helps us master coordination of our bodies and our environment, it can lead to useful discoveries, it prepares us for the unexpected by expanding our behavioral repertoire, how to correct missteps and how to remain calm when things go wrong. In the article the author wrote “Play gives you the opportunity to deal with uncertainty and surprise in a safe environment.” All of these thoughts made me ponder just how important play can be in building and maintaining relationships: cooperation, vulnerability, affection, and trust are all components of play, of playing together, of teamwork in play.

Jeff Harry, a play consultant wrote: “Adult play promotes inclusivity, cooperation, creativity, adaptivity, and egalitarianism – all qualities that we humans could use more of. Unfortunately, social norms restrain our urge to let loose. Being a playful adult is really stigmatized in our society. You don’t want to feel irresponsible. You don’t want people to think that you’re childish.”

Having fun contains within it an experience of words like good-humored, laughing, joyful, freeing. These are so needed I believe to balance life when we live with the threats of war and climate change, where seriousness can overwhelm us. We need creativity and optimism today, both things that play encourages and enables. These are the qualities that can help us to cooperate and learn to live together with differences.

It is balance that is so important – equal shares of prayer, work, and leisure (play). This is at the heart of Benedictine life. Albert Holtz, Order of St. Benedict, in his book “Pilgrim Road: A Benedictine Journey through Lent” used a splendid word “spoudogeloios”- a tongue-twisting word from classical Greek. He said: “It’s a combination of two words: spoudo, ‘serious, earnest’ and gelein ‘to laugh’. So, it can mean something like grave-merry or serious playful.

I want to be able to go through life as someone who manages to keep the serious and the playful in balance – it seems to me to call up an image of the life of Jesus. How we all want to follow Jesus, be like Jesus! We are all on a spiritual journey longing for the gift of being able to balance the light and the heaviness in life. It is a journey, a journey into wisdom, nothing happens overnight! It takes a long time to become real! We are called on this journey of ‘grave-merry’, of ‘serious playful’ by a God of joy and gladness, who loves us unconditionally, tenaciously, beyond anything we could ask for or imagine.

I share a beautiful hymn from the Hymn Book ‘Gather” (#564):

The play of the God-head, the Trinity’s dance, embraces the earth in a sacred romance,
With God the Creator, and Christ the true Son, entwined with the Spirit, a web daily spun,
In spangles of mystery, the great Three-in-One.

The warm mists of summer, cool water that flows, turns crystal as ice when the wintry winds blow.
The taproot that nurtures, the shoot growing free, the life-giving fruit, full and ripe on the tree:
More mystic and wondrous, the great Three-in-One.

In God’s gracious image of co-equal parts, we gather as dancers, uniting our hearts.
Men, women, and children, and all living things, we join in the round of bright nature that rings
With rapture and rhythm: Creation now sings!