Playtime: Keeping It Together When Things Fall Apart
Welcome back to Lucid. When I started this newsletter, I wanted it to provide analyses of the dynamics and developments involved in threats to democracy, but also be a space for the expression and practice of humanitarian values. “Lucid is a space of caring and solidarity where we help each other understand and process the losses we suffer,” I wrote.
The Q&As we hold on Fridays, 1-2ET (and occasionally on evenings) are intended to be such a space. If you haven’t attended one, I encourage you to do so.
This essay was written in the spirit of encouraging self-care and rest, not to retreat from society but to keep the calm disposition and clear-sightedness we need to act effectively in the world. It’s appropriate that it was written on the International Day of the Girl, for reasons you’ll see. Enjoy!
A few years ago, I had a wondrous encounter in a Chicago hotel. I was eating breakfast when I saw a girl, no more than 8 or 9 years old, sitting with her family at a nearby table. She was speaking in Italian to herself, or perhaps to an imaginary friend, about a game she wanted to play. Then she started reflecting on play itself, in an astonishingly adult and philosophical way.
She must have sensed I was watching her, because she came right up to me and said, in Italian, "Ma che cos'è un gioco rispetto alla nostra umanità? Perche giocare quando c'è tanta miseria nel mondo?/What does a game mean with respect to our humanity? Why play when there is so much misery in the world?"
With her pink skirt and sparkly headband, she seemed to me like a fata, or fairy, who had appeared in the banal surroundings of a Hilton breakfast buffet. I stared at her and said, "bisogna giocare comunque/You should play anyway." "Grazie," she said, and walked away.
This exchange has returned to mind repeatedly this year as our political situation has become more stressful and mass death from Covid-19 has created more "misery in the world." It can be hard to keep one's equilibrium when relations with friends and loved ones have been ruptured by disinformation, when taking your child to school means enduring harassment by anti-vaccine activists, and when law enforcement officials seem to feel more empowered than ever to harass and harm people of color.
Relentless right-wing messaging and engagement-focused social media platforms, both designed to trigger high emotions, leave us in a situation of sensory overload.
This state of affairs explains the interest in slowing down and stepping back. That might mean disengaging with the attention economy. Or reducing news consumption and time spent on social media platforms. Or lowering the temperature of conversations about politics by focusing on listening to others rather than making your point. It might mean having a different relationship with your smartphone: turning off notifications, leaving it in the entryway, or removing apps.
And it might mean integrating regenerative pauses into the workday. Studies show that even a few minutes of psychological detachment from work tasks, such as when looking at nature, brings renewed clarity and energy.
We can also consider the embrace of "idleness," as Celeste Headlee calls it in her 2020 book, Do Nothing. Such "nonproductive" activity takes us out of the nefarious “days-engineered-for-maximum-efficiency” mindset.
The artist Jenny Odell made a similar point in her 2019 book, How to Do Nothing. "In times such as these, having recourse to periods of and spaces for 'doing nothing' is of utmost importance, because without them we have no way to think, reflect, heal, and sustain ourselves - individually or collectively. There's a kind of nothing that's necessary for, at the end of the day, doing something."
Play might seem to fit into this category of regenerative activities. The characteristics of play as detailed by the historian and linguist Johan Huizinga in his classic study, Homo Ludens (1938), still stand today. Play is voluntary activity undertaken with no material interest or profit in mind. Those who play step into a reality separate from ordinary life, with its own rules and order. Play is not "useful" activity, but engaging in it is essential for happiness.
The now-centered time of play takes us out of our fixation with the future, which in times of high anxiety is a good thing. It provides a respite from the apocalyptic visions we get from doomscrolling, and relief from our personal striving (the "when this happens, I'll be content," which Happier author Tal Ben-Shahar calls "the arrival fallacy"). Play also frees us from the prison of rumination on past humiliations and grievances--a prison authoritarians are only too glad to keep us in, because it fosters anger.
It's telling that authoritarian regimes have rarely left play alone and have consistently sought to take leisure time over, coopting it for their own purposes. For play brings us together in ways that autocrats find threatening. Group play teaches fairness and equity ("taking turns"), while private passions and hobbies can build confidence and direct our focus inward.
As Odell writes, we can reimagine FOMO (fear of missing out) as NOMO (the necessity of missing out). Reclaiming our own space, listening to our own truth, and reconnecting with our heart and our senses isn't evasion. It’s about taking the space we need so we can return to the world with greater clarity.
Play, whatever that means to you, can have a similar function. Yes, we have a democratic emergency on our hands, and much work to do. But we need to play anyway, for in playing we affirm our humanity, and our humanity is what autocrats fear.