Midjourney AI’s take on kids playing tag; my own prompt
I did not realize at first what it was that I looked upon. As my wandering attention centered, I saw nothing but two small projecting ears lit by the morning sun. Beneath them, a small neat face looked shyly up at me. The ears moved at every sound, drank in a gull’s cry and the far horn of a ship. They crinkled, I began to realize, only with curiosity; they had not learned to fear. The creature was very young. He was alone in a dread universe. I crept on my knees around the prow and crouched beside him. It was a small fox pup from a den under the timbers who looked up at me. …
He innocently selected what I think was a chicken bone from an untidy pile of splintered rubbish and shook it at me invitingly. There was a vast and playful humor in his face. … I dropped even further and painfully away from human stature. It has been said repeatedly that one can never, try as he will, get around to the front of the universe. Man is destined to see only its far side, to realize nature only in retreat.
Yet here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed, innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of it two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head. The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.
It was not a time for human dignity. It was a time only for the careful observance of amenities written behind the stars. Gravely I arranged my forepaws while the puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement. I drew the breath of a fox’s den into my nostrils. On impulse, I picked up clumsily a whiter bone and shook it in teeth that had not entirely forgotten their original purpose. Round and round we tumbled for one ecstatic moment. We were the innocent thing in the midst of the bones, born in the egg, born in the den, born in the dark cave with the stone ax close to hand, born at last in human guise to grow coldly remote in the room with the rifle rack upon the wall.
But, I had seen my miracle. I had seen the universe as it begins for all things. It was, in reality, a child’s universe, a tiny and laughing universe. I rolled the pup on his back and ran, literally ran for the neared ridge. The sun was half out of the sea, and the world was swinging back to normal. The adult foxes would be already trotting home. …
For just a moment I had held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone. It is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish.
— The Innocent Fox, by Loren Eiseley (abridged)
Play is one of the behaviours that, I think, is biologically conditioned in us, rather than culturally conditioned. In fact, except within the constraints of rigid rule-based competitive games, my sense is that most human cultures now actually discourage play. We fear that play will interfere with our focus, our sense of responsibility, and our success in life. “Life is hard” is the refrain of many adults, everywhere. Play is frivolous, we are told, a waste of time. And, bereft of practice, we have largely forgotten how to do it.
Loren’s fox pup, we might rationalize, plays because it is an effective and relatively safe way to learn essential survival skills. But animal behaviour studies have identified lots of play behaviours that have absolutely no apparent “learning value”. Wild creatures seem to play, then, when other imperatives aren’t making demands on their time, just for fun. Just like the two little girls on the train I wrote about recently.
As I get older, I am more and more drawn to the very simple argument that the fundamental driver of almost all animal behaviour, including our species’, is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. It explains so much, that more ‘utilitarian’ explanations cannot.
This pleasure/pain ‘logic’ to our behaviour is understandably disturbing to those who insist there must be a ‘higher’ meaning and purpose to our lives than this. But why need there be? My sense is that, for the devout and religious (including those who adhere to the modern religions of ‘free market’ economics and the inevitability of ‘progress’), there must be a higher meaning and purpose to justify all the suffering in the world ‘now’, even though most of that suffering is seemingly self-inflicted by our species. This suffering is necessary, we hear, in order to make the world better for future generations (or in the ‘afterlife’).
This seems to me an utterly threadbare and backwards argument. Despite attempts by moralists and misguided Hobbesians* to rewrite pre-civilization history to align with their narratives, there is abundant anthropological evidence that pre-civilization human cultures lived healthier, more peaceful, and hence presumably happier lives than anything our civilized cultures have ever produced. The problem is there is no way from where we are now back to that simple, easy, connected way of life — the way most wild creatures live, or lived until their ways of life were destroyed by human incursion. No way back, that is, except forward through collapse.
That’s not anyone’s fault, but it’s enough to ensure most of us are conditioned to believe that civilization’s current collapse must be prevented or at least mitigated, and that just accepting collapse (as inevitable, or even as a somewhat positive development) is deemed unacceptable ‘defeatism’. So we have to suffer, and work hard to keep things going as long as possible. No time for play, sorry.
I have met many people, mostly but not all of them young people, who seem to have retreated from the ‘real’ world into what some might call an escapist world of play and imagination, often immersed in online role-playing games. And there are others who are beginning to begrudge having to be part of a ‘work world’ that seems to them broken, unpleasant, unfair, and unnecessary. Doing work, they might be sensing, is not only disagreeable, it’s unnatural, especially work that does not give us pleasure. If our human population were much smaller, and if we used technology in effective and egalitarian ways, then theoretically at least only people who really wanted to work would (have to) do so. The rest of us could play all day.
This is what life is like for many bird species. You vie with others, if you’re so inclined, to be a ‘breeding pair’. That pair works hard because that’s what they’ve ‘signed up’ for. The others help out during breeding system, but the rest of the year they spend a small amount of time seeking and consuming food, and the remainder of their time in play, even as adults. I witness this outside my window every day. If we’re such a smart species, why can’t we manage to do this?
Why do we like to play, rather than doing something else, or nothing at all? We seem to be a naturally curious and imaginative — and social — species. Playing, including activities like making music, and art, and love, and dancing, seems to be in our DNA. We can conjure up evolutionary reasons for this behaviour, but there is no need to do so. We may just do it because it maximizes pleasure.
Play is important, not for what it might teach us that is of use to us in the rest of our lives (that seems to be mostly a by-product advantage of play), but because it keeps us healthy and happy. It’s good for our bodies and our psychological health. It produces and releases chemicals associated with happiness, peacefulness, and exhilaration.
I am very fortunate in that, especially in my retirement years, I am able to spend more and more of my time in play. Most of my ikigai — the list of things that get me up in the morning and eager to start my day — are playful activities.
And when we live in a society that disparages play as “kids’ stuff”, deforms it into prescriptive, competitive activity, and gives us so little practice at it that (as with most of the retired men I know) we lose the capacity to do it, that society is inevitably going to be unhealthy.
I’ve often described myself as a “joyful pessimist”, and much of what I think makes me joyful “in spite of everything”, is the pleasure I find in play. As I relayed in my short story about the young fortune-teller, I have learned that even the simple act of (unforced) smiling has an enormous effect on my attention skills, my level of self-awareness, and the amount of pleasure I experience each day. Smiling has a strange pleasure-multiplier effect, as I wrote about in my story:
Unforced smiling actually did affect my mood, and when I’m smiling, I notice things more often, and focus on them for longer, than when I’m just inside my head. It’s as if my brain is constantly saying “Hey, what is it that you’re smiling about?” and turning its attention to finding visual clues to justify the smile. It was my first realization that the brain’s incessant pattern-making is all about rationalizing what is already happening, not actually making anything happen, not actually deciding anything. And, looking (or, sometimes, listening), it is forced to find something worth smiling about…
That seems to me an inherently playful way of looking at the world. And smiling can also of course serve as an invitation to others to play, too, and can be infectious.
Since our behaviour is, I am convinced, fully conditioned, we cannot deliberately set out to include more play in our lives, or engage more playfully with the world. We are either inclined to do so, given the circumstances of each moment, or we are not. But I think our declining capacity for real (unstructured, not rules-bound) play bodes badly for our ability to cope with the accelerating collapse of our sad, suffering civilization. I’ve suggested that this incapacity may stem from an unfortunate entanglement of the circuits in our brain early in our species’ development, an evolutionary misstep.
But perhaps if we are able to find the opportunity to hang around more often with young children and wild creatures, we might witness, in Loren’s words, “the universe swinging around to present its face, a face so small that the universe itself is laughing”. And, at least for a moment, we might remember the joy and the astonishing pleasure of simple play, and laugh along with it.
* Hobbes’ “nasty, brutish, and short”, often misrepresented as referring to the lives of wild creatures, actually referred to human societies in the absence of strong central governments.