Right in time for the weekend here is a lovely meditation on the intrinsic power of active play from an opinion piece published last month on the New York Times by professor of philosophy and fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture at Columbia College Chicago, Stephen T. Asthma. Asthma divides play into two categories: amusements and active play, which are very much aligned with Martin Seligman’s categories of the pleasures–fast, cheap and ephermeral joys–and the gratifications, which are activities that fulfill us and build a sort of positive emotional capital. A welcome reminder that play is its own reward and a critical component of a full, engaging and meaningful human life.
p l a y f o r p l a y ‘ s s a k e & r e t h i n k . . . *
Usually, if we see an appreciation of play, it’s an attempt to show its secret utility value — “See, it’s pragmatic after all!” See how playing music makes you smarter at other, more valued forms of thinking, like math, logic or even business strategy? See how play is adaptive for social evolution? All this is true of course, but one also wonders about the uniquely human meaning of play and leisure. Can we consider play and leisure as something with inherent value, independent of their accidental usefulness?
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I want to suggest that we divide play into two major categories; active and passive. The passive forms — let’s call them amusements — are indeed suspicious, as they seem to anesthetize the agent and reduce creative engagement. From our “bread and circuses” television culture to Aldous Huxley’s soma culture in “Brave New World,” the passive forms of leisure are cheap pleasures that come at no effort, skill or struggle. On the other hand, active play — everything from sport to music to chess, and even some video games — energizes the agent and costs practice, skill, effort and calories. Even the exploration of conscious inner-space, through artificial or natural means, can be very active. The true cultures of meditation, for example, evidence the rigors of inner-space play.
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The stakes for play are higher than we think. Play is a way of being that resists the instrumental, expedient mode of existence. In play, we do not measure ourselves in terms of tangible productivity (extrinsic value), but instead, our physical and mental lives have intrinsic value of their own. It provides the source from which other extrinsic goods flow and eventually return.
When we see an activity like music as merely a “key to success,” we shortchange it and ourselves. Playing a musical instrument is both the pursuit of fulfillment and the very thing itself (the actualizing of potential). Playing, or even listening, in this case, is a kind of unique, embodied contemplation that can feed both the mind and the body.
When we truly engage in such “impractical” leisure activities — with our physical and mental selves — we do so for the pleasure they bring us and others, for the inherent good that arises from that engagement, and nothing else.
Source: Reclaiming the Power of Play