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Why all work and no play is bad for the soul

Credit: Getty

Credit: Getty

August 31, 2018   4 mins

“Why must I let the toad work squat on my life?” asked Philip Larkin. Why indeed. I can’t be the only person who identifies with these words as the long summer holidays draw to a close and the grim prospect of uninterrupted wage slavery lays stretched out ahead of us.

I exaggerate. But after a joyous August of playing aimlessly with my 20-month old son, creating dens, making up silly games, and singing his favourite nursery songs, I find the change of mood at this time of year more than a little deflating.

And when I read that the American Academy of Pediatrics has just published a report – The Power of Play – in which they argue that children are now so incapable of play that doctors should prescribe it to them as some sort of therapy, I want to chuck my laptop in the skip and return to the simple pleasures of mucking about with my boy. Yes, it’s a fantasy. “Ah, were I courageous enough to shout, Stuff your pension! But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff That dreams are made on.” Larkin continues.

My complaint is not so much about the work, but really more about instrumentality – the idea that everything we do has to be for some further purpose, a means to another end. Play, by contrast, is always an end in itself. It’s here the American Academy of Pediatrics report gets things badly wrong. It argues “research demonstrates that developmentally appropriate play … is a singular opportunity to promote social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills and build executive function”. “Play is not frivolous” it says, “it enhances brain structure and function which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.”

This is utter balderdash: not balderdash as in untrue, but balderdash as in missing the point. Of course play is frivolous, entirely frivolous – anything else and it isn’t play. The idea that play is a means to an end, that it is some important developmental stage en route to ‘pursuing goals’ , turns play into a form of work. And nothing could be better designed to undermine play that to give it this sort of point.

I am fortunate enough that there is something entirely pointless about what I do as a priest

I am fortunate enough that there is something entirely pointless about what I do as a priest. OK, I can hear the atheists sniggering at the back, so I had better clarify that. I mean pointless in a very particular sense: that the worship of God is pointless in so far as it is conducted for its own sake, not to elicit some additional advantage.

Those who assume that Christians worship God as means to adduce divine favour, thus to build up points to get into heaven, or – even more foolishly – to get little Jonny into the local church school, miss what worship is supposed to be all about – simply the joy of doing it, in and of itself.

When the Book of Revelation describes heaven as eternal worship, it does not mean that it will be like some sort of endless church service, the Vicar droning on and on to infinity. That’s not heaven, that’s the other place. Rather, the worship of heaven is more like play: something that derives its meaning, purpose and satisfaction in and through the very act of doing it. That is why it is able to go on forever.

Worship is the nearest thing I can think of to play

The central image of God in the Christian tradition is that of the Trinity, three persons creating one-ness though some sort of continual dance with each other.  Imagine a sort of divine Ring a Ring o’ Roses, all holding hands, dancing in a circle, celebrating life in a whirligig of continuous motion. Not three, but made as one in the disco of loving interchange, the continual giving and receiving of love.

Perichoresis is the technical theological word for it. And worship is the privilege of participating in this divine life, the reciprocal exchange of loving kindness, the playful dance of life celebrating life. So when human beings are said to have been made in the image and likeness of God, that means they are made for play.

I know, I have probably strayed too much into sermon mode here. But worship is the nearest thing I can think of to play. G K Chesterton put it thus:

“It might reasonably be maintained that the true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task-garden, heaven is a playground. To be at last in such secure innocence that on can juggle with the universe and the stars, to be so good that one can treat everything as a joke – that may be, perhaps, the real end and final holiday of human souls. When we are really holy we may regard the Universe at a lark.”

Children are born knowing how to play. Adults tend to lose that ability. I have a pond at the bottom of my garden. It has a dozen or so goldfish in it. My son can sit there for ages, just pointing to the fish as they pop to the surface. “Dag” he says (fish in Hebrew), as one comes into view. And I sit with him, doing nothing but this. There is no other point to sitting out there occasionally spotting fish, yet these are the most joyous and life-affirming of times.

After a while, I think I ought to be doing something useful, like writing a column. But Louie resists my need to get on with stuff. He takes my hand, sits me down and makes me wait for the next fish. My boy is teaching me how to worship again. “Truly, I tell you,” says Jesus, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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