Wisdom Through Play

  A New Unity Sunday Gathering




Two Tramps in Mudtime, by Robert Frost

Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
The judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man's work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right--agreed.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.


Excerpt from “Lapis Lazuli”, by W. B. Yeats

On their own feet they came, or On shipboard,'
Camel-back; horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discolouration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

Message, by Qaisar Siddiqui


I have no idea what I’m doing up here. I wrote this sermon at a horribly inappropriate time, given that preceding attempts had yielded little better than a few disconnected words and some devastating collisions with writer’s block. In these moments, as usual, the sheer frustration would push me into launching the Steam icon on my Macbook, loading up a litany of possible gaming opportunities. And as usual, rather than indulge in something especially novel, I’d always find myself going straight for the game that Steam kindly tells me I’ve clocked up more than 1800 hours worth of playtime on. Civilisation V is the kind of strategy game that gives historians like myself a solid migraine, where Boudicca, Gandhi, and Washington can rub shoulders in the year 1666, form a tenuous alliance, invade Australia, and threaten spectacular nuclear armageddon, all thanks to a hiccup in the global banana trade. As it does for nearly every other game it offers, the Steam platform bolsters the initial challenge Civilization V provides with hundreds of extra challenges, the completion of each resulting in a small, virtual trophy that hangs in the player’s own online parlour. Initial achievements include merely starting the game, or building a granary, yet eventually progress into the arbitrary and absurd, meaning that it can only be a matter of time before you’re pulling all-nighters fuelled by red bull and Pendulum, relentlessly gunning for that trophy awarded for an attack on a Roman Unit with an African Forest Elephant from a mountain tile while playing as Carthage. It’s at the point where I poured hundreds of hours worth of leisure time into the pursuit of somewhat superfluous achievements, did I consider that maybe I had a bit of a problem, and it was only when the play had itself evolved into a chore did I really consider what fun, and what wisdom, could be achieved through those 1800 hours.

Speaking of the history lessons offered by Sid Meier and his video games, to even suggest that one can find wisdom through play, rather than through reading, testing, or self-indulgent sojourns through the Indian subcontinent as part of a “Gap Yah” - I decided to buck the trend and “find myself” in East Africa, instead - is fraught with problems. Latter-day hipster culture has granted credibility, if only commercial at that, to twee infantilisation, whether it be adult-sized onesies, or school-dinner-themed pop-up restaurants, and by implying that one can find a genuine self-actualisation, or profound spiritual wisdom, through the act of play, do we not run the risk of cheapening the pursuits of monks and rabbis? Does the elevation of playground games to a form of prayer constitute a naive sacrilege, and a tacit acceptance of our culture’s fetishisation of youth, or worse, full-blown Peter Pan syndrome?

The problem with asking us to find wisdom through play is our immediate tendency to search for utility. The assumption that any wisdom we may garner through games, playground or virtual, must have some kind of practical application in real life, originates in a somewhat crude reading of evolutionary biology. Nature documentaries tell us that, while play is common in the animal kingdom, it is but the dress rehearsal to the Darwinian struggle that lies beyond the relative innocence of childhood, and as it may be for lions and leopards in the African Savannah, so it must be for the children of inner city London. Why else would we ask our kids to play house, or to imagine working in a shop, or an office, and then end every play session with that simple, yet horribly bewildering question of “what do you want to be when you from up?” Framing play as the means, and not the end, gives rise not only to regimented parenting that reduces childhood to a metronome from one violin recital to the next volleyball practice, but also implies that play must have an ultimate end, and that end must be adulthood.

                       Image from http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02357/lion-cubs- fighting_2357300k.jpg

                       Image from http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02357/lion-cubs- fighting_2357300k.jpg

In his poem Two Tramps in Mud Time, Robert Frost not only details the gaiety two unemployed lumberjacks find in an act of play, but himself precedes the poem’s denouement - an emphatic declaration of Frost’s desire to punctuate his work with the passionate, carefree glee the lumberjacks embody - with several stanzas calmly recollecting the beauty of an April day, playfully signalling to the reader that he may have already achieved his grandiose intentions. What countless schools of Aristotlean writing may describe as mere filler, Frost transforms into something else, and invites us to similarly revel in the sheer purposelessness of the April day he lavishly describes. 

Purposelessness is absolutely terrifying. More so in a culture that demands the utility be squeezed from every possible minute and interaction, and that childhood play host to a series of boot camps to prepare for the rat race. Were it written today, Otis Redding’s Sittin' on the Dock of Bay may have instead become Actually Get Off The Damn Bay And Finish Those Spreadsheets. Those expressions of joy that define the playground are called juvenile, naive, that they are the domain of children and only children, hence the declarations that the adult onesie crowd should, quote “Get In The Sea.” But why should adulthood become the moment when we demand every action, every moment, have a purpose? Play, in this sense, is revolutionary. It sneers in the face of our biological drives, the demands of the workplace, and the self-help obsession with purpose and meaning. It demands that we shut up and dance, submit to the moment, and enjoy.

For his part, and despite his flagrant Orientalism, Yeats confronts the history of humanity in the early stanzas of Lapis Lazuli, lamenting the wars, wreckage, and turmoil wrought by generations of evil-doers and bystanders. Yet in these moments of suffering, he hints at the a seemingly universal "Gaiety transfiguring all that dread”, and one strong enough that, as Yeats suggests of the Shakespearean heroes he describes; “They, if worthy their part in the play/Do not break up their lines to weep.” Indeed, this does ultimately grant some utility to the act of play, perhaps even one that would make Marx spin his way through Highgate. Maybe these moments of sheer, transitory gaiety may can provide a measure of comfort in the midst of an ostensibly indifferent Universe. This act of play is not mere distraction, in the way that my hundred-hour stints on Civilisation V may be, but a concerted attempt, like the great meditation masters of the East and West, to live in the moment, to revel in purposelessness and timelessness, to celebrate the eternal now.

The greatest wisdom that play can offer us is not tethered to earthly goals of wealth and prestige, but to those that may speak to that part of us that exists in the absolute now. Open worlds, like those offered by Minecraft, invite us to open our hearts and minds to the possibility of creation Ein Sof, or without end, for no other reason than because we can. The automatic, yet fleeting, high the humble swing and slide set immediately delivers invites us to celebrate the moment as it happens, and to revere the act of useless fun. I’m not suggesting that we adults regress to a state of pre-pubescent childhood, and to forego our jobs and our taxes in favour of mashed bananas and soiling ourselves. I simply suggest that we try to embody that spirit of playfulness, of openness and purposelessness, in between our bouts of hurried work and personal conflicts, so that we may become a little more human. Our world, and our lives, as coloured as they are by joy, play host to enough tyranny and ugliness, and need not force us to adapt our leisure to the demands of natural selection, the corporate world, or bad romances. Play can be that one aspect of human existence that has no purpose whatsoever, ironically granting it a purpose after all - to, as Yeats hinted at, help us drive through the sorrows and lamentations that can punctuate our lives. Because, to paraphrase the greatest Western philosopher of our time:

"The players are going to play, the haters are going to hate, so we should just shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it off. Shake it off."


May it be so.