Play: Plato's Universal Remedy

Donald NorfolkYou don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to enjoy a high level of well-being. There’s no need to pump iron, run marathons, stand on your head or follow a strict, macrobiotic diet. All you’ve got to do is adopt a healthy life style, and that includes filling your life with fun. This may sound a trifling thing to ask, but in practice some people find it exceptionally hard to do. We’re trained to take part in organized games, with their strict boundaries and formal rules, but often find in difficult to enjoy the uninhibited freedom of spontaneous play. Many middle class men and women have been schooled to be ‘respectable’ and find it difficult to let their hair down and indulge in bouts of carefree jollification. That’s why some years ago a German psychiatrist set up a ‘play school for parents’, in which he encouraged grown-ups to break free from the strictures of their routine daily lives by sitting on the floor and indulging in happy-go-lucky finger painting and clay modeling. According to historian Johan Huizinga, who wrote the classical study Homo Ludens, unstructured play activities like these give rise to feelings of elation and enthusiasm, followed by a sense of joy and deep relaxation. This explains the answer that Plato gave two thousand years ago in answer to the question: ‘What is the right way of living?’ At the time most of his fellow philosophers believed that life should be lived in accordance with strict ethical rules. Others felt that people wouldn’t go far wrong if they lived each day as if it was their last on earth. But the answer Plato gave to his own rhetorical question was totally different and wholly unexpected. ‘Life’, he said, ‘should be lived as play.’

Children and young animals find it easy to follow Plato’s advice. They show a natural inclination for spontaneous fun. Dogs delight in chasing a ball. Lambs leap for joy, and elephants in captivity get fiendish pleasure from squirting jets of water over unsuspecting passers-by. Human adults have an equal need for simple, life-affirming play, but all too often they allow their lives to be come too respectable for their own good. Many pay lip service to the old adage ‘All work and no play make Jack a dull boy’, but don’t always recognize the extent to which a life of routine conformity and seriousness can predispose to sickness, fatigue and underachievement. This was demonstrated by psychiatrist Erik Erikson in his outstanding, thirty-year study of a group of American youngsters. This revealed that the individuals who were leading the most interesting, happy and fulfilling lives as adults were the ones who’d managed to keep a sense of playfulness at the centre of their lives. Others, he judged, were suffering tension, boredom and gloom because they’d left behind the jollity and freedom of their youth. Life for them had become an excessively somber affair, an endless round of worries, woes and unpaid bills.

To preserve our mental and physical health we must stop taking ourselves too seriously. We need to have fun if we’re to lead a full and rounded life. Competitive games with their formal rules are not enough. From time to time we need to discard our formal personas and kick over the traces. During these times we should feel free to act in an uninhibited way: to make whoopee, laugh at our follies, let our hair down and do outrageous things. This behavior is possibly childlike, but it’s certainly not childish. Adults should find time to be silly, a word derived from the Middle English word ‘seli’ meaning ‘innocent and blessed’. Timothy West, the British actor, recently told a reporter that he enjoys writing ‘silly’ letters to his friends. He also remembers dancing in an abandoned fashion with his wife when he was in his early seventies. They were on a holiday in St Petersburg and entered a square where balalaika music was playing. Without a second thought the couple cavorted in the street in full view of passers-by. ‘It was one of the most memorable and wonderful experiences of my life’, he recalled.  This innocent form of spontaneous self-expression is not one of life’s optional extras, it’s a fundamental human need. We’re never more innocently, or productively, employed than when we’re having fun.

© Donald Norfolk 2010

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