On Play

I was fascinated to learn that Carl Jung discovered the therapeutic benefits of creativity by, himself, re-enacting a form of childhood play. An attempt to uncover the roots of an early psychological conflict. To be sure, such a desire to experiment on oneself, to delve into one’s unconscious so rigorously and imaginatively, requires a playfulness of heart. A light spirit. There is something, I think, inherently playful about the act of experimentation. About imagination applied to the pursuit of knowledge. For those of us engaged in the quest for self-knowledge, particularly, having a certain spunk can be the very thing that keeps us balanced when we are forced face-to-face with our demons. While most of us will never recreate for ourselves the essence of childhood (for the sake of resolving an unconscious conflict or any other reason), as Jung did, each of us, I believe, can work to develop a spirit, or an attitude, of playfulness. To add shades of meaning to our experiences by imbuing them with greater life. After all, what is playfulness–the desire for frivolity, amusement, lightheartedness–if not an expression of vitality and a desire for freedom? To be playful is to preserve life. To rescue oneself from mundanity. Drudgery. Drama. And the intentional transformation of the everyday into opportunities for amusement and creativity. A refusal of that which has the potential to weigh us down. To trap us and box us in. A playful spirit is the lifeblood of the imagination and, as I see it, a means of dispelling anxiety and fear. 

Here are some thoughts on play (as an activity) and playfulness (as an attitude):

You must have the confidence to play.

To my mind, “to play” (as an adult), means to approach an otherwise serious-seeming task with a marked sense of wonder, curiosity, a relative lack of seriousness, a desire for fun, and a thirst for novelty. When I examine the impetus to play within myself, I notice, most obviously, that it often goes hand-in-hand with creativity. But, also–and more importantly–that playfulness, as an attitude, seems be correlated with the ability to trust myself. With self-confidence and self-reliance. To my having faced a number of life’s struggles and garnered faith in my own abilities as a result. That is, at some point (probably within the last 10 to 15 years), I stopped taking a lot of things so damn seriously. Stopped thinking that certain circumstances must be avoided at all costs because Oh, my God! I’ll die—I’ll just DIE–if (Insert catastrophe here.) happens! And started learning instead that I had a wonderful capacity to roll with the proverbial punches. And, that learning to navigate life’s challenges made me a more capable, more creative individual. As long as I kept those challenges in proper focus. (Is it wrong that, as I piece together these thoughts, part of my mind is searching for intentionality? I have, it seems, been reading a bit too much existential psychology.) It was only through the successful completion of tasks and the handling of circumstances that I had previously thought beyond my control, that would lead to certain failure, or other inconceivable outcomes, that my perspective became more conducive to playfulness. I grew more lighthearted. More adventurous. More confident in my abilities to handle whatever life gave me. It was then that I became able to let go enough to experience the satisfaction of playing freely.

girl in red swimsuit

Play bucks authority.

Back when I was a university student, I used to marvel at (and sometimes be irked by) the degree to which some of my professors got caught up in other people’s ideas. So serious. So unadventurous. Indeed, so serious that some, it appeared to me, became rigid. Became beholden to what so-and-so said because if so-and-so said it, we must speak about it as if it were truth. Incorporate it into our vocabulary. And adopt it without ever really challenging it. By contrast, my favorite teachers were always the ones who encouraged the challenge. Who snickered at my harebrained schemes to play with others’ ideas (no matter how mighty the intellect that generated them). But, who allowed me to do it. Who helped me develop an intellect that was less afraid of authority. That wasn’t timid and learned to embrace its own capacity for originality. 

It occurs to me that it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a truly original idea if one were afraid to play with others’ ideas. To tinker with them, tease them apart, and put them back together in unusual combinations. In a manner that is simply fun. That is, at least temporarily, unafraid of any consequences. And that involves a most rewarding and productive combination of intellect and imagination. 

Play is life-enhancing.

This point is, perhaps, obvious. But, I think it bears mentioning. The little acts of play that can make our daily lives more vibrant. A little more joyful. For me, cooking is chief among those activities. Less because it makes me feel lighthearted and more because I generally approach it with a kind of abandon. I experiment. Sometimes, I insert little challenges for fun. I make without overthinking. Without really worrying about the outcome. 

The same can be said for physical activity. I exercise almost everyday. Not to meet a specific training goal. But, because it makes me happy. Because, most days, I feel a little bit like I’m playing while I am doing it. (Is physical activity inherently creative?) Those are my moments of freedom. Running. Swimming. Lifting weights and jumping rope. Fresh air and sunshine. It all makes me lighter.

abstract red-haired girl

Playfulness is sexy.

Not directly arousing. But, in the sense that it’s inherently erotic. An imaginative, soft kindling. To play, generally, is to be disinhibited. To play sexually or sensually is to infuse a little more life, a little more creativity, and a little more fun into behaviors that could easily become rote or routine. It is a choice to approach one’s partner, and even oneself, with an open, attentive, and loving attitude. An attitude of appreciation. 

I paused for a moment after I wrote the preceding paragraph. Is playfulness not an incredibly simple form of appreciation? Can we not learn to appreciate by playing? Does the kind of wonder, the kind of awe, that characterizes play not indicate a deeper appreciation of life? And, I ask myself, what does that say about creativity? About creativity and appreciation? An homage to life? A great deal, I think. A great deal.

13 thoughts on “On Play

  1. What came to me after I read this is that perhaps creativity is at the heart of who we are as human beings, and to live a full life means to become increasingly conscious of this. Your thoughts on exercise remind me very much of my own experiences. I do think physical activity is inherently creative. I ran nearly every day for around thirty years, and now I walk for over an hour a day, really because I want to. Exercise is an essential creative act for me. I never ran in a marathon. I ran for twenty or thirty minutes a day because part of me needed to expres itself in that way (there are other psychological factors involved in my doing exercise, but at the bottom of it is my desire to do it). As with all of your posts, this one has been very interesting to “play with” in my mind.

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    1. And as usual, your thoughtful comments have given me something to tinker with. I am beginning to think of “creative” activities as those that generate life. I used to think of creative living in terms of activity—that is, of being an active participant, or one who “makes” oneself and designs one’s own life. But, my mind is changing. To think of one’s creative capacities in terms of a life force, of an expenditure of energy that begets more energy, as a form of reaching out, is different. Exercise certainly fits those criteria. (I, too, run for about 30 minutes almost daily.) I think I like this new definition…

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      1. Yes, I think it does, too. It also fits in with May’s approach. (I’ve been reading so much May, I feel like my brain is teeming with his ideas.) I wonder if it fits in with Rank’s ideas, too? I’ll have to think that one through…

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  2. I am afraid I haven’t read anything by Rollo May. Jung’s concept of libido, or psychic energy, reminds me of his paper or essay, “On Psychic Energy,” which I believe is in Volume 8 of his Collected Works (I believe it can also be found in The Basic Writings of C.G. Jung). I don’t know if you have read Jung before, but especially the essays and papers that make up his Collected Works can be disorientating reading experiences, which is part of what attracts me to his work. In any case, happy reading!

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    1. Oh, I love Rollo May! He’s amazing! Whenever I read him, I feel as if he is teaching me. He has such a wonderful knack for making complex concepts easy to digest. “On Psychic Energy” sounds like something I might like to read. If I may say, you are quite adept at transforming those disorienting reads into compelling and enjoyable fiction. Thank you for the suggestion!

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  3. “Light of sun in the sky sends the message: Be Fearless and Play!” ~ Wookiefoot. Is it okay if all you’ve accomplished in your first fifty years is half-a-life of play? Ha ha ha! Another great post, Laura! 🙂

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    1. Haha…Wookiefoot! I think half a life of play is about right. The other half being all the colorless stuff you need play to offset, of course. Tell me, are you still reading any May? (Don’t tell me I’m the only one who got a thrill out of “The Meaning of Anxiety.”) If the answer is “no,” you won’t hurt my feelings. 😉 Thank you, as always, for reading my stuff.

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  4. I have May’s, “Love and Will” right now but haven’t started it yet, as I also have three other books I’m trying to get through. I am really into Steven Pinker’s stuff right now. I’ve begun “How the Mind Works”, and “Enlightenment Now”. I hear of a writer or a book, and then place an order to my library. Then I end up with a stack of books to try and read within two weeks. It never seems to work. I need more playtime! Ha ha ha! Always watching for your next post…:-)

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