Play as acting out one’s capacity for the future

As I write this, many of us are on lockdown due to COVID-19: the coronavirus that has been reported in most countries all over the world. This disease is still spreading quickly.

In the middle of all this, one of the most common phrases being used in the media about the future is this:

“It will get worse before it gets better.”

This phrase has been used in speeches, articles and memos during this crisis as well as nearly every recent viral outbreak: H1N1 swine flu, Ebola, and Zika. It’s a phrase that we also use when we talk about personal crises such as romantic or break-ups or the death of a loved one, in which case someone usually follows up by saying “time heals all wounds.”

When we don’t know whether we are healing or hurting or both, thinking about what lies ahead in the next few weeks/months/years can be so incredibly stressful that we emotionally shut down. The growing depression around us reminded me this week of a quote attributed to Brian Sutton-Smith, the scholar and teacher who write so brilliantly (and playfully) about play:

“The opposite of play is not work, it is depression.”

Quote attributed to Brian Sutton-Smith

Unless you have read Sutton-Smith’s The Ambiguity of Play, you probably don’t know that the often-quoted version of Sutton-Smith’s words is from a much longer passage. The reduced quote entered wide use after Dr. Stuart Brown’s 2008 Ted Talk on the value of play, in which he quoted Sutton-Smith’s “opposite of play” passage without attribution.

Subsequently, the quote went somewhat viral. It has been attributed on the internet to everyone from Stuart Brown to Brené Brown (silly humans) and has been written in all kinds of weird quote posts with inspirational backdrops of mountains and trees and people joyously jumping off short piers into lakes.

Granted: the shorter version is pithier, and I myself have used it to help reframe and jostle commonly held binaries of work vs play. But it is in the much longer passage, I think, that we can find some helpful food for thought during a time of growing lockdown, fear and depression. This is the full quote from the 1997 book The Ambiguity of Play:

What makes play adaptive is the “willful belief in acting out one’s capacity for the future.” What a beautiful phrase! Play is a feeling of purpose, a feeling that there is, as Stuart Lester put it, “more to be done.” Its opposite is vacillation (the inability to decide between actions), or perhaps a weakened locus of control (Rotter 1954): a lessened belief in our ability to control the outcome of events in our lives. Its opposite is depression.

Many of us at this moment feel little control at this moment. We have lost jobs. We have lost loved ones. We aren’t sure what we can and can’t do to protect our communities. We vacillate. For those of us with depression, the fear around COVID-19 will intensify feelings of sadness and isolation.

In a state of depression, we feel we can do less. Do not confuse “doing less” with #stayathome. Staying at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is not doing less. It is doing more. It is hope that we can get through this. It is inaction that produces great action.

Can it be helpful to think of staying at home as a way of doing more: as a form of play? At this moment of knowing only that it will get worse, I am finding the writing of adrienne maree brown particularly helpful. In a post this week, she suggested we “Sabbatical Our Quarantine.” She acknowledges that unlike a planned sabbatical, “quarantine can be a massive inconvenience, a shift from external to domestic work, a period of financial crisis, a period of familial and communal fear.” But perhaps there is a way to find moments of play in this time of fear:

relinquish knowing. you had other plans, your calendar was full, you thought you knew the future. but actually none of us know how all of this is going to play out… i hear grace lee boggs voice in my head asking ‘what time is it on the clock of the world?’”

Sabbatical Your Quarantine, adrienne maree brown

Yes: it will “get worse before it gets better.” But if we are “passionate”, “willful”, and willing to believe in the “play venture” as if “assured of one’s prospects,” we may be able to be confident in, and hopeful for, our capacity for the future: even if it is, as Sutton-Smith says, a “fantasy.”

What time is it on the clock of the world? Is it frivolous to think of play during crisis? Sutton-Smith, again, has advice for us, and with which I’ll close. Take care of yourself. Stay at home. Be tender with each other.

“Why do we study play? We study play because life is crap. Life is crap, and it’s full of pain and suffering, and the only thing that makes it worth living — the only thing that makes it possible to get up in the morning and go on living — is play.”

Brian Sutton-Smith, quoted in The New York Times

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