The Importance of Play

Playfulness by Paul Manship

I love to play. As a kid, I played organized baseball, soccer, basketball, and a lot of sandlot football in the rain, snow, mud, and freezing cold. Those are some of my best memories. To hit, kick, throw, or catch a ball gives me great pleasure to this day and I can’t pass kids or teenagers playing a ballgame without wanting to join in—and I often still do. Engaging in joyful play is one of life’s greatest gifts and playing any silly game with my grandchildren gives me that joy.

I mention this so that my readers know that I’m not constantly thinking about the meaning of life. (Assuming you thought that:) Yes, I am passionate about philosophical questions but I don’t believe they should not be the only thing one thinks about. Many people have lived good and happy lives without thinking deeply about philosophy. In fact, one can think too much about deep questions. Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but surely the over-examined life is not worth living either. Life is too short to spend too much of one’s life thinking about life. (The proverb “primum vivere deinde philosophare,” in English reads, “First live, later philosophize.”) 

I believe that joyful play, which includes engaging in art, music, or literature, is essential to a meaningful life. This is a lesson that Will Durant taught me long ago, 

The simplest meaning of life then is joy—the exhilaration of experience itself, of physical well-being; sheer satisfaction of muscle and sense, of palate and ear and eye. If the child is happier than the man it is because it has more body and less soul, and understands that nature comes before philosophy; it asks for no further meaning to its arms and legs than their abounding use … Even if life had no meaning except for its moments of beauty … that would be enough; this plodding thru the rain, or fighting the wind, or tramping the snow under sun, or watching the twilight turn into night, is reason a-plenty for loving life.

I note that those who are cooperating parts of a whole do not despond; the despised “yokel” playing ball with his fellows in the lot is happier than these isolated thinkers, who stand aside from the game of life and degenerate through the separation … If we think of ourselves as part of a living … group, we shall find life a little fuller … For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self.

Thinking is essential to a meaningful life, but so too is playing. So paint, garden, read, write, make music or play ball and contentment will often follow. 

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8 thoughts on “The Importance of Play

  1. I have learned that there is a huge difference in life between “making a living and living.” Fortunate, indeed, is the one that knows this and achieves the “Golden Mean”or the balance between the two. One of the most essential points I took away from my first course in philosophy was the emphasis the Greeks placed on developing a healthy body and mind. I would often remind my friends that all the time we spent playing tennis, golf and skiing, we could and should hold a Ph.d in these activities. In the end, like so many others have asked on their death bed: “What was all this about?” I’ll know, and smile and be glad I didn’t spend more time in the office. What is the meaning of life? I’ll probably never definitely know, but I will know that friends, play, art and food have been my elixirs in this life. Still at play in the fields of our creator.

  2. Doc,
    Thank you for this piece. So often we thinkers work so hard to solve problems and cure madness and pain with literal resolution and forgo the obvious. I can appreciate the value of play—I still fancy myself as a baseball pitcher, but also spent a short stint in the military and often contemplate what you exposed. Play, ah, play, might be the most important. I have posed this question to many. Could a commander petition a soldier to go and kill if his morning activities were filled by a hearty breakfast, the sexual activity of choice, and scanning the internet for Monty Python or Cheech and Chong memes followed by a game of catch with a child? I would think not. We often forget the value of leisure and trade it for seriousness. Thanks again for stating the obvious that we sadly overlook.

  3. Jason – thanks for the positive reinforcement. i sure don’t sit around thinking about the meaning of life all day.

  4. It is pretty incredible how, just days before you wrote this article, I actually wondered what you thought about this very subject. I obviously don’t believe in “non-coincidences “, but sometimes they are really weird, and I can think about several.

    Until a while ago, I started to shun pretty much all play. I guess some philosophers influenced me, like Schopenhauer, who disdained people who “sit around and play cards”.

    But now I reached a satisfying conclusion: it is good to do away with entertainment if you have to learn something. But at a certain point, it has to be enough, if it is a lot. Also, we need to discern between “play” and entertainment, I guess. Celebrating a birthday party with someone seems very different than wasting your time playing videogames (and what a terrible way to waste one’s time the latter is, although years ago I did play some videogames.).

    “Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but surely the over-examined life is not worth living either. Life is too short to spend too much of one’s life thinking about life. (The proverb “primum vivere deinde philosophare,” in English reads, “First live, later philosophize.” “.

    I cannot fully agree with this statement (but I fully respect it). I am sure that in your heart you would not believe that a Socrates, or any philosopher, exaggerated with their examinations of life and the other manifold things connected to life and death. As for the proverb mentioned, well, any fool can “live”, but how many do really LIVE? I guess the latter are very few: they are all philosophers! The others may THINK they “lived”, but I don’t believe that in the least. Just like, say, playing a musical instrument, the dabbler is in a very different league than the concert master.

    But this is not to say that just because one knows nothing about philosophy, is despicable….the only despicable people are the ones who do despicable things. But certainly, the philosopher lives at a completely different level, and yes, far higher.

    I have also realized, I think, one very important thing: play can be very meaningful, but only if shared with OTHERS. I would laugh at myself if I’d intend to celebrate my birthday, alone.

    Someone I know, assumed that I shunned birthday parties (or any parties or celebrations) just because I told them that it seems to me ridiculous to want to celebrate a birthday, considering that it only means one is getting older, and closer to the “end of the path”, as I call it. They see me as a “pessimist”, yet they were puzzled when I said I fully encourage one to celebrate anything that can be celebrated, but that it is only meaningful if done with OTHER PEOPLE (sorry about the dumb capitals, I still have not figured out how to write cursive on my Ipad… I am quite retarded with computers).

    But maybe I am wrong, or at least, not entirely right: some play, can be a completely solitary, and equally enjoyable, activity. As a musician, I never thought about writing music to “share” with others, but simply to express something. I think painting is the same. Or even fishing at sunset. So it seems to me that play is different than entertainment, and art is different from the others.

    But, I fully agree with your belief that we should not ALWAYS think about the meaning of life. I certainly do not do, or want to do, that either! “God”, no 🙂

    I guess philosophy is like, say, martial arts: it is too intense to constantly be doing it. No one trains all day.

    But as I mentioned, I too am relaxing the idea that I should always be learning. Just yesterday I saw The Incredibles 2 and I enjoyed it a ton! So even entertainment, if moderate, can certainly be worthwhile, provided one has not “lived” most of his life in front of the TV (or Youtube, Tik Tok, Ping Peng or whatever else comes up these days).

    Thanks for your excellent article!

  5. PS. even Schopenhauer wrote that “Not a single opportunity should be lost in opening the door to cheerfulness.”. And he enjoyed going to the theatre, playing the flute, and going on long walks with his dogs.

    So we I definitely agree: play is A-OK. Actually I am starting to believe that philosophers need it more than most, or even that they are more entitled to it than others. I often enjoy my play as a reward after having done some harder work (or boring work, which is hard!. 🙂

    It actually would seem a strange contradiction for a philosopher to live, but not enjoy whatever can be enjoyed, no matter how “trivial” it may seem. So I guess it is not trivial at all! Thank you.

  6. PPS. I actually am very mindful of not being a “party wrecker” when I see “simple” , especially younger people, enjoying things. When I was younger, I was the opposite, and I am ashamed of that! I wish I could go back in time and enter the room dancing, laughing and being silly!

    “The problem with philosophy”, Leopardi wrote, is that “It shows the ugly and sad part of life, which is true.”. Sometimes it is better to keep the truth for oneself. Philosophy is like a special club, not just everyone should be a part of it, but only the ones who really want to, for whatever reason. The ones with a sturdy mind, who can take it, accept its truths, but still kind of “living a double life”. This has nothing to do with being phony or inhauthentic, more with “being like water”, as said in Buddhism.

    In short: yes, life is short, so it seems seriously silly to BOTH not asking questions, and shunning all play. Both are needed, according to context. Another interesting tenet of Buddhism (though I am not Buddhist, or anything) is that anything done too much, becomes destructive. Thank you.

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