In law school, my professors were fond of handing out elaborate hypotheticals designed to test our powers of observation and analysis.
Today, I’m going to give you a hypothetical to get you thinking about a facet of our lives that we often overlook or push to the back-burner.
Intrigued? I hope so. At the end, there will be a quiz. Be prepared to explain your response (as they say in every good exam!).
You are at work, sitting at your desk, dutifully pouring over the first quarter’s financial projections. You’ve finished your fourth cup of coffee and are considering whether that candy bar in the vending machine will suffice for lunch or whether you need to head across the street for a pre-packaged sandwich when the phone rings.
“Uh oh” you think as you glance at the display screen – “she” only calls when something has gone completely off the rails.
It’s your boss.
With no small amount of trepidation, you answer the call. Prepared for the worst, you paste a smile on your face, extend a cheery greeting, and ask how you can help.
What you hear next practically knocks you off your chair.
Instead of asking you to respond to the latest disaster, your boss tells you that she has decided to give you the afternoon off, with pay. It’s her way of thanking you for all of your hard work.
However, she has one condition: you must spend the afternoon playing and be prepared to tell her what you did when you return to work the next morning.
You readily agree and get off the phone before she can change her mind. Grabbing your keys, you head out to the parking lot and get into your car.
Sitting behind the steering wheel poised to put pedal-to-the-metal, it hits you: you have absolutely no idea what she means by “playing.”
You take a moment to consider your options.
You could: a) take a nap; b) head over to the mall to see if something strikes your fancy; or, c) clean out the garage – something you’ve been meaning to do for the last six months.
You aren’t sure if any of these options will satisfy your boss. The euphoria that filled you moments ago starts to evaporate and panic makes itself known.
The issue facing our hypothetical employee is fairly simple – namely, what is play?
For humans, play is a refuge from ordinary life, a sanctuary of the mind, where one is exempt from life’s customs, methods, and decrees. Play always has a sacred place – some version of a playground in which it happens. The hallowed ground is usually outlined, so that it’s clearly set off from the rest of reality. This place may be a classroom, a sports stadium, a stage, a court-room, a coral reef, a workbench in a garage, a church or a temple, a field where people clasp hands in a circle under the new moon. Play has a time limit, which may be an intense but fleeting moment, the flexible innings of a baseball game or the exact span of a psychotherapy session. Sometimes the time limit is prearranged; at other times it’s only recognizable in retrospect. The world of play favors exuberance, license, abandon. Shenanigans are allowed, strategies can be tried, selves can be revised. In the self-enclosed world of play, there is no hunger. It is its own goal, which it reaches in a richly satisfying way. Play has its own etiquette, rituals and ceremonies, its own absolute rules. ~ Diane Ackerman, Deep Play
So, I ask you, do any of the options selected by the hypothetical employee qualify as play?
The importance of this question cannot be underestimated – not only for purposes of this hypothetical, but for our own lives, as well. Many of us, I fear, would find ourselves in the same situation as our hypothetical employee if we were unexpectedly granted a moment, an hour, an afternoon, or day that was completely our own for the sole purposes of playing.
We wouldn’t know what play was. We wouldn’t know what – exactly – was expected of us.
Which is both sad and funny at the same time.
We used to know the answer quite clearly back in the days when we could entertain ourselves with anything, be it breadcrumbs or cardboard boxes. In an instant, we could slip away from the ordinary, manufacture the extraordinary, and enter a state of divine concentration where the only goal was to have fun.
As we grew older, play was pushed out of us. We were encouraged to sit up straight, stop goofing around, and get to work.
Gradually, we stopped playing.
We grew up and, worse yet, we forgot what play was or how to do it.
The Rules of Play
So, let’s break down the elements of play as described by Ackerman:
- A refuge from ordinary life
- A sacred place
- A time limit
- Favoring exuberance, license, and abandon
- With the play itself being the end goal
- Done according to its own rules
Using this framework, can you define what constitutes play? For our hypothetical employee? For you?
Will our hypothetical employee be able to fulfill the boss’s request?
If you had one minute to list everything you do that counts as play, what would be on the list?
Would you know what to do if someone told you to go out and play?? If not, why not?