We spend too little time at play in our busy lives

Apr. 17, 2014 @ 01:01 AM

My last column here dealt with issues of time and busyness.  I received so many heartfelt emails from readers that I want to revisit that subject and delve a little deeper than the first 675 words allowed me to do.  This isn’t a subject I have mastered, but one I struggle with almost daily.  Apparently I am not alone.

Here’s a tale to consider -- one that I’ve heard in various forms (author unknown). A fisherman heads home early every afternoon with his daily catch.  A businessman notices, and asks why he leaves so early. 

“I caught all I need,” the fisherman says, and describes the remainder of the day he’ll spend playing with his family, and his evening in the village playing music with friends.

The businessman scoffs and admonishes the fisherman to spend more time fishing, to sell the extra fish to buy a larger boat, and then several boats, eventually leaving his village to establish a company that could make millions.

“Then what?” the fisherman asks. 

“Then you would retire and move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, spend time with your family, and stroll into the village in the evenings to play your guitar with your friends.”

The fisherman looks up and says, “Isn’t that what I’m doing right now?”

The title of the story labels the fisherman as “lazy,” and unless he was retired we would likely nod in agreement.  But most retirees I know are far busier than that fisherman, and our children, even young ones, could shame him with their achievements.

Children were once turned loose to play.  Very few activities were organized, and kids were not coached to improve or pushed to compete.  They created their own games and competitions, refereed their own skirmishes and engaged their imaginations to create the scenes they played in.  They didn’t need lessons on how to play.

The same isn’t true for many children and most adults today, it seems. Our overly scheduled days don’t offer much space for play-time, and what we call play is often purposeful and not for its own sake -- which is the very definition of play. 

Mihaly Czikszentmihaly, who coined the term “flow” that I mentioned in the last column says, “The popular assumption is that no skills are involved in enjoying free time… Yet the evidence suggests the opposite:  Free time is more difficult to enjoy than work.  Having leisure at one’s disposal does not improve the quality of life unless one knows how to use it…"

Without play our brains shrink.  Play enhances us emotionally, spiritually and physically.  There is even an emerging psychological term, coined by Stuart Brown, called “play deprivation.”  I can’t wait until that shows up in the diagnostic books.

Unlike exercise or yoga, play isn’t something you can just put in the schedule.  It must emerge out of spaciousness and, like flow; it takes a generosity of time to perform its magic on our minds and spirits.  It works like sleep -- you have to stay a while.

Like the businessman in the opening story, we create complex systems to earn our leisure time and fail to realize that time is given to us as a birthright.  Indigenous societies have far more free time than we do, leading writer Martin Prechtel to encourage us to “recover our own indigenous soul.”

And so I think often of that fisherman and all the forces that work against him and his lifestyle.  He’s onto something, and we’ve got it all wrong.  A quote by Alix Kates Shulman comes to mind:  “The more extravagantly I spend my time, the more time I seem to have.” 

Extravagant spending meant that last week I edged the garden by hand when a machine would have been much faster.  I found flow, and even bumped up against play when I imagined laying the grass in elaborate patterns to dry into hay.  I think this all might get easier with practice.  Someday, I hope you’ll call me lazy like the fisherman.

A CHH columnist since 1998, Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and has served as Executive Director of The Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill and previously of Orange Congregations in Mission in Hillsborough.  Currently she manages a horse barn and a home business on the Orange County farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at sgladin@gmail.com, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.