We do what we do because, from an evolutionary perspective, it works. In nature, children play, breeding adults work, and non-breeding adults do a bit of both. In raven communities, for example, each flock has a breeding pair and a bunch of singles who help protect the breeding pair’s young, search for food, connect with other flocks, and otherwise spend their time doing barrel-rolls on roofs, mid-air cartwheels with their talons entwined with each other, mimicking sounds (brilliantly), and, when they’re alone, singing to themselves. Likewise, geese will fight over the breeding area, but if they lose the fight, they will head off to the subarctic summer grazing area with the rest of the non-breeders and party all summer until it’s time to head south for the winter.Parenting is a privilege, and its price is full-time work. For the rest, young and old, what keeps them getting up in the morning is principally having the prospect of having fun. If life for a species becomes tedious rather than joyous, it is likely that Darwin’s rules would have that unhappy species underperform at the survival game, and yield to some other species that has more reason for living than just survival.There is growing anthropological evidence that early human societies were also largely leisurely, with perhaps an hour a day, or a day a week, needed to gather or catch the community’s food, and the rest of the time given over to art, exploration, play, and just living in the moment. This is how life works in a world of abundance.
But today we live in a world of ever-growing scarcity. While a smaller percentage of humans are destitute than was the case in civilization’s earlier centuries, those brief gains have come at the cost of the desolation of the Earth, and the theft of irreplaceable resources from our children and the other species who co-habit our planet, soaring debts that are unsustainable. Today in much of the world we keep work longer and harder just to make ends meet. Instead of having children every five years or so, as they did in ‘prehistoric’ times, many women in recent millennia and even now have children every year, because the only asset they have to offer up to those who can keep them from destitution is the labour of many children. Prior to civilization and permanent settlement, having more than one child each five years was impossible, since the unweaned needed to be carried everywhere the nomadic tribe went until they were old enough to keep up on their own two feet. Nature enabled this by sharply reducing fertility during breastfeeding. It worked, so by evolution’s rules this was the way we lived. Lots of walking, but lots of fun, too. Not so for modern humans.
For civilized humans, parenting is not a privilege with a five-year respite but an expectation and responsibility for every adult (reinforced by social mores, religious dogma and, in much of the world, brutal economic necessity). More children means more work to raise and provide for them. So now marriage, which we have somehow come to believe is an integral part of parenting, has become another job (This is one of the theses of Laura Kipnis’ wonderful book Against Love). And in civilized society, we all have to be interdependent (self-sufficiency is a naturally effective way to live, but a terribly inefficient one), so we must also have a job in service of others (so that we can afford to have them serve us in return, without which we would live, as Derrick Jensen puts it, in constant fear of not having enough).
So we grow up, most of us, working at a job in service of others, working to keep a marriage and home together, and working at raising children. So when do we have fun? Sex is now often work within a marriage, almost always forbidden outside a marriage, depressingly monetized, and fraught with danger — and the self-service alternative is stigmatized. No fun there. How about sports? Well, it’s an industry now. Work hard, use the right drugs, bribe the right judges, and you can be ‘successful’ at sports — it’s become work too. If you don’t like working that hard, you can be an observer of sports and arts: That’s an industry, too — the entertainment business. The ‘players’ are the people on the field or on the stage, and they’re working very hard. No play there. And we in the bleachers and in the loges are mere spectators — that’s not play either.
When we’re children, as I wrote before, we are addicted to play — we don’t want to do anything else. This is a natural addiction — it’s how nature makes learning fun. We know better than to confuse this with the torture that takes place in classrooms — learning that’s no fun. But we never really lose the addiction — we’re meant to love playing all our lives, whenever the opportunity arises. We are not supposed to stop learning. If we haven’t learned enough from play by the time we become parents — enough to be good parents — well, then Darwin will take care to remove our lineage from the gene pool so that the error is not repeated.
What has happened to play, though, in recent years? Play is no longer open-ended, physically rough-and-tumble, mostly outdoors, social, and unstructured. Our children are kept indoors for their health and/or safety (indeed, it is now sometimes hard to get them to even go outside). Their toys and games are closed-ended: Specific rules, limited options. They are physically unchallenging. They are asocial or even anti-social, interacting with objects instead of people. They are highly structured. What kind of fun is this? Instead of being addicted to tag they are addicted to a video game. This is a different kind of addiction — one driven by adrenaline instead of endorphins. It increases stress levels instead of lowering them. Winning becomes important instead of learning. Mental exhaustion replaces physical exhaustion. Reflex replaces creativity. Watch children playing video games, and listen: How much laughter do you hear?
So then they get older, and the games change. They are invited to ‘create’ new realities, but these new games are still governed by intricate rules and limited options. Whereas ‘real’ play is socially engaging, these games are social escapism. What little you learn is of value only in the hermetically sealed artificial world. Adult organized games like golf and poker (at least when you play the same poker variant over and over) may offer a little more social
The essence of fun and play is imagination — and that is not the same thing as creativity. I think we live in a world of enormous imaginative poverty, not because we’re incapable of imagination, but because we’re badly out of practice. The words play and work are antonyms, a dichotomy of all human activity. They are their own root words, so their meaning is clearly fundamental to all human experience. They are impossible to define well using other words — we just know what they mean. The word fun is inextricably associated with play. The significant differentiator between work and play is that work has a predetermined objective while play does not. So if the objective of an activity is to win, then it is work, not play.
The idea of doing something without any predetermined objective is now foreign to us. To us, such ‘idleness’ smacks of thoughtlessness, even rogue behaviour: Aren’t graffiti and vandalism the consequences of ‘doing something without a predetermined objective’? Maybe that’s why we want people to work all the time — we don’t trust people to play. If we can’t imagine, we can do anything.
If we want to relearn how to play, to have real fun — the kind that is delightful and not merely exhilarating — we first need to relearn howto imagine, and practice it. The children and animals can show us how.
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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
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