Let’s Play!

The answer to the world’s problems might be a good game of tag.

Everyone who walks into my office comments on how good the view is. It takes in our shiny new science building, the nearby volcanic peak, and a range of hills farther off. Earlier this week, all that was eclipsed by between fifty and a hundred grade school kids running around on the lawn outside the building, playing tag and laughing.

It looked like so much fun just to chase someone. College students don’t do that, and neither do university employees. Which I think is mostly too bad because joy was spilling off those kids. (OK, a friend and I chased each other down a hallway in the new building before it opened, and it was awesome.)

I think that would be one of the great gifts of parenthood—the excuse and the opportunity your child gives you to play and be silly. I don’t think we stop needing to do this as we get older, but sometimes we forget we need it.

Play renews us. It loosens our hearts and spirits and helps us take everything a little less seriously. There are plenty of serious things in this world—disease, the loss of a job—but there are many more things that we blow out of proportion. I suspect that many of my catastrophes would melt away after chasing someone around the yard, having a tickling match, or jumping on the trampoline.

It’s so easy to forget the importance of having fun, and I am grateful to those giggling kids for reminding me that running can be much more than exercise, that life is more fun when we’re not worrying about who’s watching, and that joy is as easy to find as a game of tag.

What’s the Use?

There is a story about a bunch of trees on a hillside, and all of them are cut down except one that is so old and gnarled it’s not useful for anything. Despite the wisdom of this story, I recently discovered I’d rather spend a lifetime thinking M&Ms were the pinnacle of chocolate-dom than have people consider me useless.

gnarled pine tree in sand
Photo by Dan Mahr. Used under Creative Commons License.

This idea of usefulness did not come from me but from someone in a dialogue group I attend regularly. In this group, we often experiment with interrupting something we habitually do, and my reaction to the possibility of not being useful to people was panic. Why would anyone like me if I no longer did the things they counted on me for?

I suspect the only human beings who don’t worry about their usefulness are kids lucky enough  to be raised in a loving family that has the means to provide for them. Even then, the time to enjoy a state of uselessness is brief.

We start training our children to be useful early in their lives, as soon as they are able to put away their own toys. Then we give them small chores to do and ask them to carry their own backpacks at the airport.

It’s not unreasonable training. We’re social creatures, and we’re teaching our kids how to get along in society, how to become valued and integrated members of the tribe.

I wonder, though, if part of what Jesus meant when he counseled us to be like little children was to put down our usefulness occasionally, to give ourselves some time and space to be undefined, to allow the possibility of being valuable for some other reason than our contributions to family, friends, society. Parents don’t, after all, love their children because of their ability to do the dishes; they love them simply because they are who they are.

In the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie explains to one of the other children that the great thing about candy is that, “Candy doesn’t have to have a point. That’s why it’s candy.”

It might be that we don’t have to have so much of a point as we think we do.