Do Reptiles Play?

Recently I had a chance to hear Cindy Rigby speak about her recent work on "the theology of play." She has an incredible mind and is really drilling down deep with this stuff, but her basic thesis is that play is incredibly important to our spiritual lives and vital to a healthy understanding of God and of ourselves. Some time ago she was asked to speak at an event, and she proposed the theology of play as her topic. The planners of the event balked: these are serious times we live in, after all, and play is something frivolous, a luxury we can't afford. So Cindy did something that was in itself playful: she tweaked the titles of her talks to be palatable to the organizers, and went ahead and presented the play stuff under these new headings.

I think this story is OK to tell because there is no identifying information about the organization... but also because there's something universally recognizable about it. We all know people who are Too Important to Play. These people will tell you that, like the Apostle Paul, they've put away such childish things.

What a shame.

I was reading Edwin Friedman's book A Failure of Nerve recently (short review here) and he suggests that unwillingness or inability to play is a symptom of a regressive/unhealthy/anxious system:

Systemic anxiety... locks everyone into a pessimistic focus on the pathology within the [system] and it becomes almost impossible for such systems to reorient themselves to a focus on their inherent strengths.

What also contributes to this loss of perspective is the disappearance of playfulness, an attribute that originally evolved with mammals and which is an ingredient in both intimacy and the ability to maintain distance. You can, after all, play with your pet cat, horse, or dog, but it is absolutely impossible to develop a playful relationship with a reptile, whether it is your pet salamander, no matter how cute, or your pet turtle, snake, or alligator. They are deadly serious (that is, purposive) creatures.

I'm pretty sure salamanders are amphibians, and maybe some owners of pet reptiles will come along and correct Friedman's/my assumption, but I found this fascinating. The group I was with during Cindy's presentation talked about purposelessness being an important (though perhaps not essential?) component of play. My kids and I watch the reptiles at the pet store a lot, and there is nothing purposeless about these creatures. Contrast this with the kitties waiting for adoption, batting at children's fingers poking into the cages, or even the ferrets, piling on top of one another. (And c'mon, are these mice having a ball or what?!)

We even have a term, don't we: Lizard Brain, to refer to that irrational, hyper-reactive state in which minor roadblocks become life-shattering tragedies, in which knee-jerk black and white thinking trumps nuance, in which life's normal adversities become evidence of abject victimization.

Now that I think about it, that term might be maligning our reptilian friends...

At any rate, it's a sad way to live. It's sad when politicians, reporters, pundits play off that anxiety to appeal to the lizard brain. And it feels to me like a lot of us have gotten pretty good at leisure but aren't particularly good at play.

The transformation team at our church does something unusual at every meeting: we play a board game together. We take about 20 minutes and do Taboo, Cranium, or other lighthearted fun. It is a great bonding activity and helps loosen us up for great conversation. (I can claim no credit for this idea---it was a team member's idea and the rest of us ran with it.)

Some time ago we attended a training with teams from other congregations. We talked about the fun we’ve had playing games together and how it has emerged as an important spiritual practice for us. The reaction was fascinating—people pushed back at the idea! “Well, we’d all have to agree on the rules.” “It would get too complicated trying to keep score.” “People would get too competitive.” (We don’t keep score, by the way.)

One of the trainers heard this discussion, stopped everyone and said, “Isn’t it interesting how quickly we go from hearing a new idea to listing all the reasons why it won’t work? And that’s exactly why we’re all here. To train ourselves to be open to new things in our congregations. Because the fact is, the way we’ve always done things doesn’t work in a culture that is increasingly non-religious and even hostile to Christianity.”

Now, board games are not the only way to be playful. And I am certainly not diagnosing the makers of those comments as anxious or captive to the lizard brain; I don't even know them. But it was a striking moment. It led me to consider the times that I have been disdainful of purposelessness, of play.

My point of anxiety is always around the issue of time: There isn't enough time! I need to be a "good steward of my time"! I'm the task-master that keeps this two-career-three-kids machine on track! So I find that my play needs to have a point. A product.

Something to keep my lizard eye on.