When you see the word, “play”, what comes to mind?
What images? or associations? Are there memories attached or maybe a definition?
Are you smiling (at least in your mind)?
Is there a place for this word in your everyday? What sentence do you think of if you had to put it in context?
I think these answers matter. I think they matter a great deal, though I don’t think the answers can be right or wrong. In fact, my associations to this word are probably not the most common - that does not invalidate them (or privilege them, for that matter).
The word “play” actually makes me think of a piece of theory I once studied, written by a brilliant, notoriously difficult French theorist named Derrida. He was, essentially, the father of deconstructism. And no, I’m not about to go into the qualities of that theory or how it works (at least, not yet).
But the way my mind is, the state it is currently in, I correlate the word “play” to a piece of difficult, often frustrating, challenging, secular critical theory. I have “play” sidled up with philosophy.
Today, I attended a retreat at the beach (let it stand that I have a hate-hate relationship with sand and thus beaches - I’m a norcal girl, I belong on cliffs). It was a beautiful beach, Crystal Cove State Park, and I was with beautiful people (the kind of people that light up my life just by being a part of it). I recognized my blessing immediately (though I still adamantly refuse to like the beach). When we got there, we almost immediately transitioned into a time of solitude and silence. I had been studying on the bus (about Derrida and postmodernism’s implications for the Church), and I couldn’t transition very well. But finally, I got settled and my mind was able to turn off it’s gears one by one through focusing on the nature around me.
I sat and sat and sat. I saw that cacti actually have a kind of languid beauty about them, and that the grays of the dying summer are still alive, blooming with purples and golds beneath their drained hues. I saw how the horizon bends, the space between sea and sky just an illusion, just another way of making some sense of the mystery around us. Lavender in wild shoots baked beneath a burdensome sun, and the ocean hungered for a thousand different blues to name its color. It was arid and awe-striking; that such beauty could be found in what seems, at first glance, to be such a lifeless landscape of craggy limestone cliffs covered in mostly-dead bushes and broken shells.
And so I was present to my surrounding.
And yet, I had this nagging feeling that I was wasting the time I was given. With hindsight, I’m not sure how exactly this thought came about since I was worshipping God by rejoicing in His Creation, but nevertheless, I was haunted by this feeling of inadequacy and improper usage of this solo time. I kept being brought back to a similar time in my life, and I felt urgently guilty.
It was the second to last day of our final trek at my semester at High Sierra; and we had spent the week in Yosemite, spending time with the people on our team and the nature around us - drinking in the beauty that surrounded us. We were that day instructed to have a solo time along the banks of the slow-moving Merced River. I settled in between some brushes, and the scene was, as it was today, superficially life-less. Fall was all but gone, snow had already fallen and stuck in the high elevations. The winter cast its dormant glow on everything and I spent a good hour of my six just trying to get warm.
I was restless on that day, as I was today. Unlike the previous 24-hour long solo we had had on our first Trek, I felt like I could not settle into this place. My attempts to read Scripture or pray were distracted and disengaged. And I begin to feel that nagging feeling like I was wasting the time I was given. I wasn’t being productive, in my view (though how one measures being spiritually productive is a bit ill-defined).
Nevertheless, I was not “productive”. I ended up spending most of the time making little boats out of whatever I could find and seeing what survived the ripples that were rapids for these crafts of leaves and sticks. I counted splashes and floating sticks, trying to guess what sticks would make it to the finish line (defined by making it out of my view). In short, I created games to entertain myself for the time I was given. I played.
And I felt terrible about it. I carried a guilt about the deep waste and lack of productivity I had displayed. I was never quite at rest with how I spent that solo time, wishing (even months later) to go back and do a repeat. Though I’m not sure how I would have improved it (perhaps memorizing vast amount of scripture, or saying the creeds on penitent, bruised knees), there was an implicit understanding that what I had done was not honoring to God.
My playing was not honoring to God. My tiny-boat making, my drawing in the sand, my betting on currents and floating sticks. I had the sense that God was disappointed. That my time with Him, this solo time set apart for solitude and communion with God, was supposed to be functional, not fun. I mean, whatever could I learn about the God of the Universe by playing with sticks?
Today, this memory of the solo spent playing by the river haunted me during the few hours we were given to do a very similar “task”. I walked away from this solo today - where I had just sat and stared and later actually fell asleep with a blank mind - feeling the former pangs of guilt and regret. What had I done? What had I done? And my conscience said, dully and heavily: you did nothing.
My mind stayed fixated on the memory of my wasted solo by the river during my time today. In fact, it was the only truly clear, defined thought that I had during the two and a half hours. I wasn’t sulking, but I was frustrated with myself. Why had I played away those precious hours by the river? Why I had I just done nothing with these ones?
After the designated time was over, we gathered together in teams to discuss, and my guilt and regrets grew. I had nothing to say, nothing to contribute. I had learned nothing. I was not productive.
Team members began to share about their experiences. One after another they told stories about how God had just shown up. And every single one of them related their experience of communion with God…. to none other than… play.
A dear friend was called to dance and splash with the Lord in the ocean. Another felt tugged to find his way down a cliff without a path, laughing and letting go all the way. Another saw how the laughter of a little child, stumbling in the waves, was a calling to be as children, and as children of God. Story after story.
Their stories rang out: Play.
My mind demanded: Productivity.
The theory of deconstructionism is often concerned with binaries (two things that are opposed, i.e. x vs y). It is concerned with understanding how we (as a community of interpreters) privilege one binary choice (x) over another (y), as in prefer it or value it higher than the other choice. It is also concerned with deconstructing these binaries, taking them apart, examining them not set against each other, but rather relating to each other.
There is, at least in my own mind (and I think in the grander societal framework) often a binary opposition between of Play vs. Productivity. And in America, particularly as an adult, productivity is obviously overwhelmingly privileged. Even in the America-for-child, adults have stressed how play should become productive by using education-driven toys and games (don’t get me started on my thoughts about play and pedagogy).
So, in simple terms, we value (champion, really) productivity.
And I do this, oh so tellingly through my story. I value productivity over play, over fun, over joy. When faced with the scripture, “Be still and know I am God”, I focus on the verb, ‘know’, rather than the verb, ‘be’. To study, to learn, to grasp, to understand, to wrestle with, to know - that is an action that I can be productive at (see my previous post for thoughts on this).
But “be”…… What can I do with “be”?
And moreover, “Be still”? “Be still” is a command to exist in the presence of God who is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. It is a command to do not doing (oh, the decon potentials…). In that sense, it can seem self-negating, and is, in fact, God-revealing (in fact, in scripture it is often the qualifier to being able to know God).
I struggle to even say that I am not good at being still (as I am unsure it is something that success or failure can be assigned to). It is the task of non-tasking.
It is, perhaps then, a kind of play.
As my teammates talked about their revelations, I realized that what I had spent so much time regretting and fretting and feeling guilty about was, in fact, perfectly acceptable to God (though the time spent feeling guilty might be another story altogether). My playing by the river that afternoon last fall, and my blank staring and sleeping by the coast this day - that that time was spent was given to God. It was His all along. And I didn’t disappoint Him. Perhaps I pleased Him more than I could know.
My heart grew fuller with each story, realizing that God was both blessing me and calling me to engage in the discipline of play (oxymoronic?), of laughter, of untasked joy. He was, with a bit of a smirk I believe, telling me that He does not fit in my to-do list checkboxes.
He is not a God of productivity, but of love, of grace, of little children, and drawing in the sand. He’s not beneath playing peek-a-boo (just see the story of the Road to Damascus), or a practical joke or two (just look at Peter or Thomas or better yet, the disciples who were told to feed the five thousand with two fish and five loaves). He is a relational God who is more concerned with His children than He is for their homework grades.
Yes, I do believe that God rejoices when we are dedicatedly serving Him - in study or in deed. I believe He smiles on me when I wrestle with Scripture and I believe the Spirit is deeply involved in those kinds of tasks. But I learned today that for all my regrets and guilt, He is also just as overjoyed to spend time with me, saying nothing, looking out at Creation. He loves me just as much when I am dozing off in the hot sun, as when I do the “right” task, or study the right passage.
And all of this insight happened because I spent six hours playing with leaves by the river. Now what is productive? Productivity or play?
My mind was made to ponder. It was made to be drenched in ideas and spin its wheels and get stuck in the murky depths of philosophy and theory and theology and thoughts. My mind was made for doing just that. (Good thing I’m not just a mind.)
I am not a genius or really very intelligent at all. I get lost easily, and I have to look up big words. I have been accused (I use the word intentionally) of being smarter than others, a claim that hints at things like intellectual privilege and community responsibility. I have no such ability, or extra-special faculties that were granted at birth or otherwise. I am an english major who still makes comma splice errors.
But this isn’t about defending or refuting or, though this post may seem affected and manipulative, exercising some backhanded, self-degrading attempt at glory. I am merely stating two claims that I happen to be the sole evidence of: I was made, in part, to think; I am not of any higher intellectual caliber than anyone else. I must say these two claims as a preface for my next thoughts.
Today, I attended a conference on “God-honoring” diversity. While we healthily and appropriately explored common binaries in the diversity conversation (such as race, gender, sexual orientation, even denominational/theological differences between people), I could not fail to see what was left undiscussed.
This is not to say that the conference was ineffective or ill-conceived. It was neither. I was thoroughly impressed by the astute awareness presenters had for both the necessity and constraints of language (though I did think often that Derrida could have cleared things up, at times), and the overall willingness to point to sovereignty and solidarity.
But there were silences that screamed to me - dialogues that were left unaddressed - and I take it as an opportunity, rather than a disrespect, to continue having these kinds of conversations. Among the unnamed, prejudices against the mentally ill, the disabled, the disenfranchised (an ever growing population in this post-9/11 world), the ill, the obese, the extremist (whether left or right), the criminal, the victimized. Many of these thoughts come from a personal process that I’ve been walking through, a dwelling on the limits and responsibilities of justice, on who is and who isn’t valid or valuable in the world’s eyes, the church’s eyes, the community’s eyes, my eyes.
And then I stumbled on this thought today, as I was listening to the things that weren’t being address (whether out of ignorance, fear, incapacity, time-constraints… whatever), that perhaps there is even such a thing as intellectual diversity.
I wasn’t quite sure what I even meant when my mind went there, and I immediately put the brakes on and said to myself something like, “of course there is intellectual diversity - that’s what all these conversations on perspective are about… people thinking differently about the same thing”. But this speed-bump proved insufficient to stop the thoughts from speeding away from me…. intellectual diversity…. intellectual diversity.
I came to realize that what I was struggling to name was a concept about calling, much more than it was an abstraction of different perspectives and big-5 openness factors. It was a question on creation - on determination, perhaps.
A psychologist, Howard Gardner, argued that there were 9 different kinds of intelligences. There are most likely more than Gardner’s reductive labeling can account for, but 9 is enough to make my point. At the beginning of this, I claimed that I was made to think. And to be honest, I know no other way to say it. As woman from my church who has known me a long time put it, “She [meaning me] has a need to learn. It’s like she isn’t happy unless she’s thinking or learning.” And she was right. I could easily say, had I not the concerns about the restraints of language, that I am a learner by nature.
A learner by nature.
A thinker by nature.
Right now, writing this, thinking through what I am thinking about, attempting (with ill success) to communicate the quick succession of firing here and there in my mind into understandable form - this is my aisée - like the position my body falls in when perfectly at rest, my existential slouch if you will. I welcome challenge, chaos in thought, because it allows for this, this easy stance. This comfort. My body relaxes into rigorous studying - it is the way I feel at peace.
And it is the reason I have been accused (again, intentional usage) of being privileged with a wealth of intellectual power. I am not un-intelligent; I know that. But just because my body’s natural stance is that of pen-in-mouth-book-in-hand-mind-alight does not mean that I am any more useful to humanity or to God, any more successful in endeavors, or any more special in talent. And yet this stance is privileged.
I do not know if my “natural curiosity” is a product of my genetic structure, the chemistry of my mother’s womb, the intensity and intelligence of my childhood home, or some other mystery.
What I do know is that there is a declared difference in value between myself and someone else who does not like to read books, who cannot write a complete sentence, who is not able to enjoy the pursuits of philosophy, but who can rebuild the engine of a ‘57 chevy without fear or pause. There is a privilege to my hands, stained with ink, over another’s who’s hands are stained with car grease.
This is why I shrink back at the title, “genius”, as my well-intentioned, loving friend once trying to pin on me. I do embrace my aisée, my at-ease. My “existential slouch” comes in the form of reading or thinking or pondering or connecting. Any other activity, any at all, is an effort far beyond the demands of a difficult passage of philosophy or theory. For me, to be social is a demand - not that I am introverted (far from, in fact), but to be external outside of an intellectual setting, to be more than cognitive, is laborious (not tedious, but laborious). At rest, I am in my head.
The very thought of fixing a car, or raising a child, or mixing cement - they would be like strenuous exercise to me and only by continuous training and repetition and pain (and plenty of complaining) would I be considered averagely adept at those tasks. And yet for others, these are their kinds of ‘slouches’, as easy as breathing.
And yet, there is privilege towards my kind of easy - particularly in the realm of academics, and pedagogy. And yet, what produces more? What is more impacting - a thought or a mended carburetor? An idea or a healthy child? An esoteric connection or a life-saving freeway divider?
I don’t have the answers - but I will continue to think and ask the open-ended, ill-defined questions because that’s the only productive thing my slouch can achieve. My desire would be that I could cultivate my ‘natural’ stance of thinking and pondering to be, rather than self-obsessed, a kind of mirror by which or through which others can see that they are of value regardless.
I think this is why I’ve honestly felt for a long time pulled to work with the mentally-ill/disabled, the hurting adolescent, and the victimized. All three are so often trapped by a system of self-referencing shame. They are incapacitated by what society declares as their incapabilities. When these people existentially slouch - into depression, addiction, sexual promiscuity, minimum-wage jobs, circumscribed dreams - they are reprimanded, or “rehabilitated” to the expectations of the community. While healing must be sought and people must be challenged to change destructive behaviors - an underlying message of the world we live in (both in and out of the church) is that until the mentally ill/disabled get better, the teenager pulls it together, the victim quits reeling - they do not matter as much.
But they do. Perhaps their existential at-ease isn’t productive to society - or to themselves. Perhaps they are difficult to maneuver - perhaps we shouldn’t maneuver people at all, but walk with them. Perhaps they cannot hold sacred what society holds sacred - because of incapacity, unwillingness, or disenchantment. Does this reduce the value of their lives? Does the range of capability make a person a person? Does the ability of a person to see their own worth dictate what they are worth or, in other words, is a life not worth saving if a person can’t see a reason to live?
I am slouching. I am slouching with these questions, I am thinking and in my own way, I am comfortable. But if I am comfortable in this, I will try my hardest to think about these questions that make me terribly uncomfortable. I will be intentionally about stepping out of my comfort zone even when I am in it. I will find a way to serve people, broken and hurting people, in substantial ways by the way I know best how.
Yesterday, I did some reevaluating. Some perspective changing. And made some promises to myself and to my God - the kind of promises that make me thankful for grace, for forgiveness, for second-third-fourth-seven times seventy chances.
Yesterday, I was human. I was a human with a lot of questions and doubts and thoughts about how the world is and why. I was a human with scars and bruises on this heart of mine. I was full of true wonder and vapid cliches and a kind of fear that only happens when something is about to change and you can’t stop it.
I’m very much still that human.
And yet, last night as I was driving, it hit me that I didn’t need to apologize to God for being that human. I didn’t need to say I’m sorry to Him for that.
Repentance is a opportunity, a gift, a chance. He gives us the chance to come to Him and say: God, this is my heart, and I am sorry for the ways I have not honored You, served You, represented You, loved You with it.
But the thing that I’m learning is: repentance isn’t what we were made to do. It isn’t the way we are supposed to live, not in a constant state of repentance over life. We were not made to be sorry for being alive, for being human, for being made with a mind that has the ability to have questions and doubts and fears. We were not made to be ashamed.
Rather, we were made for love. We were made for Him. Our core state of being that we were made for is freedom. The freedom that only happens when we are walking with God, when we are clothed, not in shame, but in the garments of Christ’s sacrifice for us.
When we were created, spoken into being, we were with God and made in His image. We were, before we were rulers, namers, procreators, eaters, toilers, laborers, we were His. We were His, without shame. We were His very good creation, that resembled Him in image and in deed. We were the creation that was given the task of naming things, just as He had named the day and night, the sky and water, the land and sea. We were made like Him and to be like Him. That has always been our purpose, our identity, our core being.
We are human, full of broken bits and timidity and an astonishing ability to screw up, but we were His before we were ever anything else. We cannot repent of that. We cannot repent for being His creation.
And so I pray: I am sorry for the things this heart has done, but not that You have made it. I am sorry for the ways I have not honored You with my humanity, not that You gave me it. I am sorry for not living life fully, not living life the way You intended it to be lived, but I am not sorry for the life that You breathed in me. I am not repentant for the ways that God has shown His glory - whether through His creating me, or His recreating me.
We are His. We are Human.
I am His. I am Human.
I am, before I am anything else, a holy place where His Spirit dwells. I am hallowed, before I am haunted or lackluster or sinful or betrayed or any of the other thousands shocks that flesh is air to. We all have the potential to be terrible, but we were beautiful before we even had the chance to be otherwise.
It is not pride in our humanity, but awe in His glory that makes this revelation important. Be human - it is all we ever can be, and yet, as Christ was human, we can be holy.