Playing & Fighting

A New Unity Sunday Gathering


Here we are

We have arrived in this place, hoping for peace, hoping for comfort, hoping for joy, hoping for compassion, hoping for understanding, hoping that - here - we can find a shoulder to lean on when we are in need, and offer that strong support when we are strong

We may hope that this community will be a place where the challenges of conflict we face elsewhere will be completely absent

And yet we each arrive with the vulnerabilities and sensitivities and angers and hurts that feed conflict and misunderstanding

Our challenge is to work together in love and with laughter to ease the wounds and fears that foster division and suspicion

May this light help us to see beyond our pain and fear to a place of ease, of light-heartedness, and peace.



Mockingbirds, by Mary Oliver

This morning
two mockingbirds
in the green field
were spinning and tossing
the white ribbons
of their songs
into the air.
I had nothing
better to do
than listen.
I mean this
In Greece,
a long time ago,
an old couple
opened their door
to two strangers
who were,
it soon appeared,
not men at all,
but gods.
It is my favorite story–
how the old couple
had almost nothing to give
but their willingness
to be attentive–
but for this alone
the gods loved them
and blessed them–
when they rose
out of their mortal bodies,
like a million particles of water
from a fountain,
the light
swept into all the corners
of the cottage,
and the old couple,
shaken with understanding,
bowed down–
but still they asked for nothing
but the difficult life
which they had already.
And the gods smiled, as they vanished,
clapping their great wings.
Wherever it was
I was supposed to be
this morning–
whatever it was I said
I would be doing–
I was standing
at the edge of the field–
I was hurrying
through my own soul,
opening its dark doors–
I was leaning out;
I was listening

Message, by Andy Pakula


When our son was a baby, Miriam and I decided that he would not be exposed to any violent toys or films. In America, violence seems like a plague. It continues to spread from person to person and place to place. Its effects appear in the news almost daily - another shooting and another. 

We were going to our innocent baby Jacob safe from that epidemic of aggression and physical conflict. He was pure and - we were certain - innately free of violent impulses so we knew that if we kept those images from him, he would never be drawn toward hostility.

Fast forward just a few short years. The lovely middle-class wooden toys are gathering dust in the toy-chest and innocent toddler Jacob had - with strategic bites - fashioned a piece of toast into a gun. “pow, pow, bang, bang!”

“Oh, Jacob, we don’t shoot and we don’t have guns. Either eat that toast or we’ll take it away.”

Over the next months and years, everything that possibly could became a gun. We confiscated twig guns, lego guns, erector set guns, paper guns, cloth guns… Get the idea? When the urge for a weapon is strong, anything can fill that need.

We realised we were defeated when Jacob pointed a finger at us with a gun-shaped hand and fired “pow, pow, bang, bang." This time, the usual “Jacob, we don’t shoot and we don’t have guns” was met with “What are you going to do? Take away my finger?”

                                          Image from

                                          Image from

I realise that, hearing this, you may imagine that Jacob then turned out bad and violent in some way. Quite the opposite. I don’t think he’s ever been in a physical fight, although he has put himself in harm’s way to break them up and defend vulnerable people at risk.
He has put himself at risk to stand up for people being bullied and harassed. And he has dedicated himself to making a better life for people in developing nations - especially in Africa.

I say this, not to brag, although I am exceptionally proud of the young man we helped to raise. 

Play fighting is a behaviour that occurs broadly amongst mammals. 

Play, in general, is most common in young animals and then decreases as they grow older - but that is not a hard rule. Some play continues into adulthood. And for some specious, a great deal of play continues.

One of the common ideas about play fighting in young animals is that it is practice for real fighting. Animals learn the skills needed to intimidate others of their species, to defend themselves against predators, and to kill their prey.

But that is not all play fighting is. Today's Order of Service cover shows an increasingly well-known photo of a sled dog and a wild polar bear. You need to know that polar bears routinely kill dogs, and sled dogs are an easy target since they can’t get away. In this particular instance, a polar bear approached a dog and - rather than show signs of aggression - the dog showed signs of submission and play. Somehow that communication crossed a great barrier between dog and bear and they began to play together.

The bear returned repeatedly to play - and not to eat - the dog.

Is there any relationship of this to humans?

In Bonobos - our genetically close primate relatives - play serves to reduce conflict and tension amongst the individuals. But we actually know a bit more than that. 

Stuart Brown, who is a psychiatrist and is the founder and director of the American National Institutes of Play first came to consider the role of play in decreasing human aggression through a scientific study of adults who had committed violent crimes. It might have been expected that violent adults had spent their childhoods pretending to shoot their playmates. But Brown discovered - to the contrary - that the childhoods of these subjects were notable by a lack of play. Play - he believes, helps people work through conflict and aggression safely and productively. As Brown puts it  "Play can act as a powerful deterrent, even an antidote to prevent violence. Play” he says “is a powerful catalyst for positive socialization."

So, I’d like to invite you to do some play fighting right now. We’re not going to do that playing freestyle - we’ve got play weapons for you. 

Shoot at me - I’ve got glasses. Careful of people’s eyes.

(Distribute toys and let the games begin)

I hope this made you remember that play-fighting is nothing like fighting. You laughed. I suspect it was hard to feel angry or even particularly serious.

And I think that’s part of what’s going on with play and why it can make a difference. 

Think about what happens to you when you feel yourself entering conflict. You might start to feel vulnerable. Your pulse rate might increase, your face might flush, you might shake a bit. 
And in your mind, all the ways of being that help to build understanding and connection start to shut down. 

Your curiosity disappears. Instead of an open “hmmm… I wonder what he meant by that” there is something more like “he said that to hurt me!” 

Compassion, which might lead you to consider that there might be pain and fear behind harsh words and actions is replaced by blaming and accusing. Suddenly, a regular human being, with same kinds of needs and drives as you have, seems to you to be the physical embodiment of evil.

Confidence - the faith that things can and will be OK - a faith in your own abilities - is eroded. And now, instead of coming from a place of strength, you come from a place of weakness and fear.

And finally, creativity which helps you to find alternatives evaporates. Now, you have trouble finding ways around an impasse or trying varied behaviours in response to what feels like provocation

We become serious, rigid, and the space of potential in our minds closes. The open field of many paths we might traverse becomes a narrow hallway that leads in only one direction - hostility.

And play, in many ways leads us in the opposite direction. Play creates an opening. When we play, curiosity opens up. “How might this work? How can I do this? What should I try next?”
In shared play, we can’t help but drop the shields that close us off and we recognise more fully the humanity of the person facing us. Seeing the real person generates compassion.

Play shows us that we can. We can throw a ball, guess a picture, tag someone to be “it.” It shows us that others see us as human and equal. We are not less and our confidence grows.
And creativity - It’s no surprise the progressive creative organisations make room for their employees to play. Creativity and play are closely tied.

Play makes us more human, and being more human makes us more able to be human together - cooperatively, happily, and peacefully.

Make play, not war.