Playfulness Is (Almost) a Virtue
Am I the only one who sometimes wonders, “Whatever happened to recess?”
I don’t mean for the children. My kids (8 and 4) still have recess. I mean for you and me. Why don’t we grown ups stop to play anymore?
As of this writing, I’m 38 years old. At this point in my life, I’m expected to be a responsible person. I’m supposed to have a job. A budget. An informed opinion on politics. A plan for my life.
You know what almost no one expects of me? Total silliness. Play time. Recess. (I say “almost,” of course, because two of the most important people on the planet expect this all the time—my kids.)
But if I’m reading my Bible rightly, I think God might want a bit more recess in our lives—because the root of playfulness isn’t immaturity or innocence or even privilege.
The root of playfulness is humility.
Jesus said the kingdom of God belonged to those who approached it as if they were children (Matthew 18:3). Not childish in intellect, but childish in spirit.
I want to be as wise as a 38-year-old and as trusting as an 8-year-old. I want to be as steady as a 38-year-old and as emotionally expressive as an 8-year-old. I want to be serious when it’s called for. But I also want to be childish enough to know when serious isn’t what’s called for.
The way to manage both of these together isn’t primarily to act like you’re 8. It’s to embrace humility. It’s to make yourself smaller.
Humility often sounds dreary, as if we’re supposed to be beating ourselves up for being terrible, selfish, sinful people. Imagine Dobby when we first meet him in The Chamber of Secrets, literally pounding his head into a wall to punish himself. That’s humiliating, but it’s not really humility. Humility is less about punishing ourselves for being bad than it is accepting that we are human. Incredibly limited, surprisingly fragile, often absurd, humans.
Which is why playing is such a helpful way to humble us. It reminds us that we’re more like little kids than we are like all-powerful gods. And, you know, playing is fun, too.
Just think about it: A proud person is too bound up in himself to ever truly play. Perhaps he cares too much about how he looks. Or he only gets involved in something if he knows he can win. He doesn’t want to be “taken in” or duped. The humble person, on the other hand, opens herself up to all sorts of problems. She risks looking absurd or being fooled. She will probably fail a lot. Her humanity will be on full display.
But only the humble person has the potential to experience true delight. Delight, after all, springs from a heart of humility and wonder and curiosity. Humble people are constantly asking questions, constantly finding themselves surprised. Just like kids.
I’m not trying to say that humble people are inherently silly people. The truly humble person takes a lot in life seriously—just not everything. She is most likely serious about ideas, serious about other people, serious about her work. But she probably knows herself well enough to be tremendously un-serious about herself.
- G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it.” That’s about the size of it. Take yourself less seriously. Practice smallness. Play.
The Successful (and Boring) Christian Life
So what does this mean for our relationship to God?
When we think of the “successful Christian life,” many of us have in mind a person something like this (even if she doesn’t actually exist): She wakes up at 5:30 AM to pray and read her Bible for an hour. It’s quiet. It’s somber. It’s serious. When she goes out into the world, she gives money to the homeless man on the corner. She works with excellence and integrity. When she returns home, she listens attentively to her roommate. She probably doesn’t watch a ton of TV. (She prefers books.)
That’s not a bad list of habits. But is this person enjoying God? Is her Christian life a grateful response to a generous God? Maybe. Maybe not. Still, I think we’d all agree there’s more to the Christian life than disciplines like this.
In his book, Sacred Fire, Ronald Rolheiser notes, “To be a saint is to be fueled by gratitude, nothing less.” That’s a stark statement, but I’m beginning to see the wisdom in it: One of the chief goals of the spiritual disciplines is to live every moment of life (yes, even the horrible ones) with a keen awareness of God’s nearness and goodness. To live gratefully before God.
And playfulness is one of the most fun (funnest? most funnest? mostest funnest?) ways we can get there. Play is like the gateway drug for gratitude—if for no other reason than it makes us focus on the playful task at hand. When we play, we force ourselves to be fully present, simply enjoying the moment.
Kids get this without having to be told. They play, they pause, they laugh, they cry, they start over. When I’m playing with my kids, I’m not sure I’ve ever reached a point when they were ready to stop. When we play, time stands still for them. They want it to last forever. They don’t have to be reminded to “be in the moment” when we’re playing Pop Up Pirate or Charades. Their whole existence is that very moment.
The best moments of play aren’t really about the games; they’re about the company. Whenever I need a reminder for what it means to enjoy another person’s presence, my best teachers are my two children. My daughter will spend 15 minutes trying to come up with new puns for me: it’s not about the puns; it’s about us. My son will find me when I’m sitting on the couch and sit right next to me: he wants nothing more than endless snuggles; again, it’s about us.
In moments like this, I can almost hear Jesus saying, “It really can be this simple sometimes. Time with me really can be fun.”
Grateful Players in God’s Great Game
What does this look like, in real life, for those of us who are, in fact, still 38 years old? We still have to get up early tomorrow for a work meeting, pay the bill from our last doctor’s visit, prepare a (healthy?) weekday dinner, drop our daughter off at basketball practice. We have a lot to do—and recess isn’t on the list.
If you’re like me, you might try to white knuckle a little gratitude into your life. Good Christians do this, you think, so I will do this. I will journal about God’s goodness for 10 minutes every day so I will feel grateful and humble. I will do this, even if it kills me. Sure, that’s not really the spirit of the whole thing, but you’ve gotta try, right? Then you’ll fail, you’ll beat yourself up about it, and you’ll run that cycle a few more times.
You could lay the white knuckling aside for just a moment. Give yourself a little grace. And introduce a few moments of play into your day.
This is why we made the Graticube, a simple little die that has added a ton of variety to our mealtime conversations. Like many of you, I always want to be more grateful … but my inner cynic resists disciplines that nudge me that way. So we turned gratitude into a game. Roll the die and follow the cue—someone you saw, something that made you smile today, your favorite food. Then just say, “God, thanks for …” It’s that easy. And, it turns out, it’s actually a lot of fun.
Confession: We wanted to make the Graticube fun so our kids would like it. But I need it as much as they do—maybe more. In the good times, I need to slow down and recognize God’s grace toward me. In the tough times, I need reminders that God is present with me. And I can thank God for seeing a friend at work, or for seeing me through a difficult season, or for the simple glory of a pepperoni pizza.
Of course, you don’t have to get a Graticube to practice playfulness (though, obvi, I think you should). You can come up with your own ways to pause and play: pick up a book simply because you like it; read a poem; heck, write a poem; take a nap; ride your bike; dance; build a pillow fort with your kids; build a pillow fort without your kids; pretend you’re a dinosaur; take turns telling jokes.
These are just the sorts of silly things I would do. Your list will look much different. But see what kind of list you can come up with. Try to take yourself a bit less seriously, even if just for two minutes a day. Embrace humility.