ROTTERDAM – Today, we will be exploring the boyhood in masculinity. As the modern reinterpretation of manliness is more dynamic and diverse than, let’s say, a 50s gender definition of masculinity, there is place for playfulness.
When you think fondly about your boyhood days, you probably think about the time you spent playing. While we now associate playing with toys, your best memories probably don’t involve plastic crap at all. You likely think about catching fireflies, building dirt ramps for your bike, playing capture the flag, having dirt clod fights, playing wall ball, and hunting for sparrows with your BB gun.
I don’t know what dirt clod fights are, and my best memories involve playing with Lego. Clearly, this seems to involve some other generation than my own, or at least one than is wáy more American than mine.
As we got older, those endless summer nights of play came to an end as we were expected to take on more responsibility and act more “grown up.” We accepted new rules about how to behave and what to prioritize. We stopped playing and started working.
And all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
Here at the Art of Manliness we’re about the business of helping men man up and quit being perpetual boys. But becoming an adult man shouldn’t mean that you completely extinguish your boyish spirit and vitality. Indeed, an irrepressible boyishness is essential to a life of fun, humor, and happiness. While becoming a man means putting away some childish things, playtime shouldn’t be one of them.
Underneath all the layers of worry, concern, seriousness, and ego, -at the very core of our being, is a child. This child is essentially the foundation for today’s ego psychology, or the conception of agency and the individual. The idea that we have a core being, a linear history to which fundamental characteristics, personality traits, and pathologies can be traced back to this child, who embodies the first and foundational elements of our ego, is central to a paradigm that has saturated much of modern life.
It gives our Self a sense of stability. Philosophically or perhaps methodologically speaking, there can be no personal development or progress without having a starting point. There is no upward slope if you cannot trace back your previous steps. The idea that an uncorrupted (or pathologically corrupt) core lies at the centre of our Self provides us with that starting point.
Freud’s psycho-analytical theories revolved around diagnosing pathology using the idea that psychological or psychiatric disorders can always be traced back to (early) childhood and some hiccup in early development.
Freud had an exceptionally morbid conception of psychological and psychosexual development which has since then been discarted in most approaches to psychological disorders (although there are still some psycho-analytic schools that keep true to early theory developed by Freud and successors). However, the core idea, that fundamental elements in your personality and your development are inextricably to experiences in early childhood, is still very much present in modern-day psychology (e.g. Attachment Theory).
Much of pseudo- and pop- psychology nowadays revolves around enabling people to be put in touch with this “inner child” or uncorrupted core. Essentially, it is the application of a method without the pathology. These attempts to “go back” or “return” to a simpler, purer version of the Self involve a romanticisation of one’s personal history (early childhood memories); a sense of loss or confusion linked to one’s current situation; and a narrative of self-improvement that is directly or indirectly related to the romanticisation of the past.
“Play” is a large part of this romanticisation. Playfulness is one of the core concepts advertised as necessary for a happy life (THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS), and the Art of Manliness is no exception.
Most grown-ups view play as a kind of dress-rehearsal for adulthood, believing that once we become adults, the need for play evaporates. But little of children’s play relates to actual adult experiences; most of us don’t grow up to become Spiderman or a swashbuckling pirate. Children play simply for play’s sake, for the pleasure they get from it. And it turns out that adults need to play for the very same reason.
Play, or perhaps a better word to describe the reinterpretation of a child’s actions, playfulness, involves a lot more than simply an act of pretending or pro-actively fantasizing. As the Art of Manliness quotes from an unconfirmed source at the National Institute for Play (I am not shitting you):
Play refreshes a long-term adult-adult relationship; some of the hallmarks of its refreshing, oxygenating action are: humor, the enjoyment of novelty, the capacity to share a lighthearted sense of the world’s ironies, the enjoyment of mutual storytelling, the capacity to openly divulge imagination and fantasies, … These playful communications and interactions, when nourished, produce a climate for easy connection and deepening, more rewarding relationship – true intimacy.
Now, this institute, and specifically a certain Dr. Brown, who evidently works (or has worked) at the NIFPlay, has identified 7 different types of play:
Body Play and Movement
Imaginative and Pretend Play
Transformative/Integrative and Creative Play
Now, at the core of this argument is the idea that
free, imaginative play is crucial for normal social, emotional and cognitive development. It makes us better adjusted, smarter and less stressed.
And by “play”, they (meaning the NIFPlay), mean not just aimlessly running around with a stick. There’s a bit more to it.
Play is an activity that is done for its own purpose, exclusively for the pleasure of the experience. According to Dr. Brown, if an activity’s “purpose is more important than the act of doing it, it’s probably not play.” Or to put it another way, “Most essential, the activity should not have an obvious function in the context in which it is observed—meaning that it has, essentially, no clear goal.”
So it has to be spontaneous. If you’re playing for the sake of playing, you’re not being playful, you’re just an adult with some fake cowboy boots, a second-hand hat and some plastic revolvers saying “bang, bang!”, after which you engage in lively discussion with your playmates about whether the second “bang” was a hit or not.
Which does make today’s task a bit paradoxical, if you ask me:
The task for today: Play!
While play may seem like a silly frivolity, it’s actually an essential part of our health and well-being. Manning up doesn’t mean turning into a robotic stiff. You should also maintain some of your boyish spirit. You need to make room in your life for things that you don’t have to do, but that you simply do because it gives you pleasure. So today you have to spend at least 30 minutes in pure play.
In case we’re so grown-up we can’t think of anything, the Art of Manliness provides us with some further guidance:
Do something that society says you’re too old for, but you know deep down absolutely still gives you joy. Make a slingshot; play with fireworks; build and fly a paper airplane; play table football; skip a stone; fly a kite.
Keep in mind that some of the best play involves novelty, curiosity, and most of all, exploration, whether of the limits of your body, new physical locations, or the corners of your mind.
Remember, the purpose of play can’t be more important than the pleasure you get from it. So you can go for a run, but you can’t bring a watch or try to set a new PR. And you can tinker in the garage, but not because you need to check changing your car’s oil off your to-do list. It must be something that you’re doing simply for the fun of it.
Thing is, having playtime for the purpose of having playtime takes away the spontaneity and the playfulness of playtime. Also one (of the many) reasons I hate “play dates” even though I am a bit too old to have ever been on one, and a bit too young to really have a strong opinion about those.
Finally, it’s important to not
overthink this task too much; it’s play after all! Just think about something that sounds fun and do it.
Now go play!
Man-meter: I feel boyish.