Learning to Play Again

Undoing and non-doing that opens us to linger, gaze, and laugh again

Photo by Studio Romantic | Adobe Stock

7 min read
Mark S. Burrows

Children play naturally. They teach us what it means to dwell in the land of make-believe. They show little concern for things driven by mere calculation for gain or other “adult” measures of importance. For them, the imagination is not something exotic or unsettling—even if it often unsettles the day’s ordered rhythms. 

Children live more comfortably than we do with what they do not understand—which is so much of their world. They invent games to try to make (non)sense of that world. And they often invite their elders, with varying degrees of patience, to join them in their games.

Do you remember lazy summer afternoons as a child, spent idly watching clouds drift by? Imagining what their shifting shapes might be? Or what about carefree hours spent “lost” not in thought but in delights of play—until the interruption of the dinner bell or nightfall? 

There was no outward gain in any of this. Some might even consider it time wasted. But what if doing things playfully—even if that means appearing to do nothing at all—is a vital part of our humanness? 

I recall, years ago, reading Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, by the Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga (1871–1945). First published in 1938 at the height of the fascist rise to power in Germany and Italy, the book explored not the “thinking human” (homo sapiens) but the “playing human,” warning against the senselessness of violence and the crucial role play has in shaping a life-affirming culture. When it was translated into English, in 1955, it created an immediate stir, not only among philosophers but among readers who found themselves burdened with the lingering postwar weight of horror and despair. 

“Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for [humans] to teach them their playing.” Play is essential to all creatures, at every point on the spectrum; we all “play.” Huizinga concludes by citing Plato’s opposition to war and his response to the question, “What, then, is the right way of living?” “Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing,” Plato insisted, “and then a [person] will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies, and win in the contest.” 

Play matters. It is a “public good,” essential for our survival and vital for our thriving.

More recently, the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han published a book entitled Vita Contemplativa with a provocative subtitle in the English translation that reads In Praise of Inactivity. “Inactivity,” Han argues, creates room for play, just as “unknowing” makes space for our discovery of more than we thought we could know. “Undoing” or “non-doing” opens us to linger, to gaze, to avail ourselves of a wider perspective. And “unspeaking,” or “keeping silent,” is necessary to “prepare us to speak what is unheard of,” and precisely this kindles our curiosity and encourages our compassion for the “other.” 

“Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for [humans] to teach them their playing.” 

What is it that ever abides? What endures in this life? Han reminds us that wisdom is never brandished by the loudest voice on stage. It belongs to what often goes unnoticed amid the noise of public debate. He goes on to cite the Austrian novelist Robert Musil—a near contemporary of Huizinga’s—who observed that we need a measure of leisure, or “inactivity,” so that “the particularities of life [might] lose their egocentrism, which engages our attention, such that they acquire a certain kinship and—in a literal sense—an ‘innerness’ that binds them to each other”—and us to them. 

Play opens us to the social virtue made possible by a certain kind of “uselessness.” It reminds us that only as we let go of our driving need to control do we discover how we belong to one another—in what the German poet Novalis described as “the republic of living beings, which includes plants, animals, stones, clouds and stars.” Or, as the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it in one of his radiant Sonnets to Orpheus,

We are the achievers. 
But this march of time, 
consider it a trifle  
among what ever abides.

Surely not our achievements, whatever we might like to think. But perhaps the joys we find and share in playing with each other. 

Children know this instinctively. They are easily entranced with what they discover as “new” in their world—the first dancing butterflies of spring; a glimpse of their own face caught in a puddle’s reflection; the taste of chocolate for the first—or hundredth—time. They delight in what they did not first know and, in that delight, learn what it means to “belong” to others in their world. They do this without strategy or plan, and rarely with complaint. 

Rilke once put it like this: “Childhood is a land entirely independent of everything. The only land where kings exist. Why go into exile? Why not grow older and more mature in this land?” This is something we all once knew naturally, as it were, as children: that there is a land shaped by the imagination, and it is as real in its own way as any other. And perhaps far more meaningful than many others. Children indwell this land through their seemingly endless capacity to play. And, as they do so by discovering everything for the first time, they remind us of what “first seeing” is like. And why it matters in renewing life. 

In light of all this, Rilke’s question “Why go into exile?” is worth asking, again and again, as we grow older. This is especially important because we know that the world is not a playground, but often a place of peril. A realm where violence wreaks havoc with the innocent. It is frequently, and for many, fraught with danger, driven by inequities, crushed by malevolent powers. 

We all know this.

Why, then, presume to recover a child’s view of the world? Perhaps because such a perspective invites us to imagine the land in which we live more generously. More playfully. More benevolently. It might invite us to consider every thing and every one of the earth’s creatures as belonging, with us, to that single “republic of living beings” Novalis spoke of. What would happen if we could imagine that everything on this Earth had a common kindship with us, a bond greater than all that distinguished us? 

We need children in our lives, as we grow older, because they’ve not yet forgotten the importance of reverie. They’ve not turned from the primacy of play toward matters we presume to be more pressing. They give themselves freely to the moment at hand without thinking about what else they ought to be doing. They still dare to open themselves to the immediacy of the world, even in difficult times. 

But if we know the truth that shapes their play, why do we still choose to “go into exile”? 

In a memorable scene in the Gospels, crowds of curious onlookers are bringing infants to Jesus so that he might touch them, much to the annoyance of his disciples. He ignores them, addressing the crowd and telling them to “let the children come to me, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” And he goes on to insist that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mt. 19:13-14). Rilke’s words echo this startling wisdom: if you’ve discovered a land of the imagination, why go into exile? Why, indeed?

In a letter written during the anguished years of World War I, Rilke mused: 

[T]his is what it means to be young: this thorough faith in the most beautiful surprises, this joy in daily discovery. 

What does this look like, or feel like? 

It depends on the sense of wonder, and a capacity to be startled by radiance. It has to do with delights that are simple and simply present—like a dandelion gone to seed, its thousand soft spikes waiting to be blown into the wind; or the call of a songbird hidden in the treetops, out of sight; or the dazzle of the setting sun blazing the surface of a quiet pond; or the burst of color that a bit of oil swirls about on the surface of an otherwise dull city puddle. 

Take your pick. Choose the path of your own return from exile. Imagine dwelling again in a realm where imagination holds sway. Why not, after all, grow older and more mature in this land?

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.

Mark S. Burrows is a scholar, poet, translator, and poetry editor; you’ll often see him walking Keileigh, a springer spaniel, in the Camden hills of Maine. His recent publications include Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart. The lines from Rilke’s poem are from his forthcoming translation of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus.