Friday, March 02, 2007

The Virtues of Playfulness

I find myself coming back to this lecture so often that I decided it's time to share it with the blogosphere.




The 2006 Convocation Address by Dr. Greg Roper

On the Virtues of Playfulness


Dr. Lazarus, Dean Eaker, Dean Burk, Dean Whittington,Colleagues, and Especially the Class of 2006:

Thank you for the honor of allowing me to address you, which I consider the greatest honor a UD class can bestow upon a professor. I am overwhelmed—and humbled--by your regard for me. I have heard some of the most inspiring talks of my life in this room, on this occasion, and I fear—I know—I shall not live up to them today.

When I returned to the University in the Fall of 2000, I was talking to Dr. Sommerfeldt about my own class, about the interesting qualities of the students in my classes. He said, "Oh, about every two or three years I go to the Admissions Office and say, 'Would you send me some more of those odd students?'" Well, I don't know what was going on in the Admissions Office about five years ago, but apparently someone was listening.

Because you people are strange. Silly. Goofy. Playful. But not merely playful; you possess the virtue of playfulness.

You play Euchre, a Wisconsin grandpa game, until all hours of the morning, then leap over Greek walls to pick pomegranates. You get excited about patches on your jeans in the shape of the Tau, and wear Superman shirts to your exams. You find, or construct, a Slip-n-Slide from questionable resources. You portage a canoe and have it blessed. You write essays coming to grips in the second half with Lear's suffering only because the first half had detailed how five young women, first seriously, then desperately, then madly, scoured Rome for a bathroom. (Holy Fools indeed!) You take what could have been a distressing, even dangerous Notte Bianca when the lights went out across Italy and turn it into a lark; you take twenty-some visits to the Albano emergency room and turn it into a T-shirt reminding us that the Roman numerals for 2004 are MM with IV attached to it. You sing Irish songs in rather questionable parts of the Trinity River bottoms, and end quite seriously in prayer.

And it's not just you, though this class seems particularly replete with oddballs, playful types. It is something about UD itself where, after all, we pursue serious academic work in the great texts of the Western Tradition and yet we celebrate the most obscure and silliest of February holidays; we spend a week each fall practicing the greatest of Christian virtues by, among other things, well, tackling Father Maguire. When I came to the university in the fall of 1980, I was, I don't mind telling you, a pretty tightly-wound, achievement-oriented, grade-grubbing little pain in the neck. It was my fellow students, the curriculum, my professors, something in the UD air that taught me again to play.

Now, I have taught at three other institutions of higher learning, and I was struck at each how little of this virtue the students possessed. Their free time was often raucous and rowdy, but strangely serious, even at times a little desperate. They were trying so hard to play! So I find myself wondering: is it nature, or nurture? Does the Admissions Office find you oddballs, or do we make you once you are here? What is it that enables this serious playfulness, and playful seriousness, at UD? What is the nature of play?

Well, as Aristotle says in the Poetics, man is the imitative animal, and by that I believe he means not just that we put on plays, but that play is essential to the human. We imitate, we pretend, from our earliest days; children play-act, becoming in their games Rescue Heroes and Soccer stars, firemen and presidents (though rarely professors, which is probably fitting). We imitate; we become others; we goof around as Puck; we imaginatively become Ahab. And in our play, we broaden our experience of what it means to be human.

And our imitations take many forms.

A metaphor is play, essentially unserious to a certain type of person. "My love is a red, red rose." Well, then, says the serious literalist, she has a thin green torso and a heavy red head that leans over after a couple of days . "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" Not an August one in Dallas, thank you! our literalist says, but this dissuades Shakespeare not a jot, for he pursues the comparison for another eleven lines, even if only to reject it. A scientific model is play, searching for an imitation of nature that will not just suffice but delight, be beautiful. Surely one of the most playful minds of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein, began the road to his great discoveries by imagining what it would be like to travel alongside a beam of light, and one can detect more than a Therese Bart sparkle and wink in Schroedinger's eye when he uses his cat to improve our understanding of the physical world. Play is child-like: it issues forth in wonder. It is not childish, for child ish behavior, in a child or an adult—"I want to wash hands first!" happens when the person loses that sense of wonder and only wants for his selfish little ego's possession. It is the adolescent, so worried that someone is watching him and will think him foolish, who finds it difficult to be self-forgettingly playful. I think that is what infected the students at other schools, who even in the fraternity parties and massive keggers seemed to be saying "Look at us! We're having fun!" Their play was not grown up enough to be childlike.

But all of this merely tells us how our learning can be play, perhaps at its best is play, and would suggest that every university should be filled with such oddballs as the class of 2006 possesses. My question was different: why are playful oddballs so prevalent at UD? What accounts for this glorious lightness in the face of the Ultimate questions, the Permanent Things?

Well, in all things paradoxical, and therefore deeply true, it is best to turn to the expert. In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton describes the situation of children left, as he writes, "on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff's edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the center of the island; and their song had ceased"(145).

We can play at UD, then, because we know that Truth exists, that we are made to know it, and that we have a curriculum to lead us to begin loving it and following it. Truth is that fence around the island, always there, securing us to romp and discover and take risks, to try ideas and suggest metaphors, to try models and play with concepts. Secure in this knowledge, we are not afraid of pursuing it wherever it may lead us. UD students learn so much, I am convinced, because they have the security, and thus the courage, the confidence, to play—with ideas, texts, with clay and pigment and metaphors and models. So we read the pagan Plato against Aquinas, steady Aristotle against nimble Nietzsche, bouncing them off of one another to see what we can learn, unafraid of tangling with any of them.

I suspect students at another kind of school do not have this security, for their schools, their curricula, their classes may often tell them what Gorgias thinks, that truth does not exist, or if it does is unknowable, or if knowable is incommunicable. They are not as free to play, for they might fall off the edge at any moment, into the pit of meaninglessness or the chasm of their own egos. They end up huddling together in a few timid, workable ideas, unable to run in the wide fields of truth, unable to achieve the freedom of great-souledness. At yet a different kind of school, students seem to be taught that the Truth is so fragile, or their own intellects so tender, that they must be protected in a small corner of truth; they are so afraid of losing what truth they have that they will not let the students read chancy, dangerous thinkers who might raise unpleasant questions. These schools, if you ask me, commit the mistake of being afraid of Creation, of not seeing the cosmos as redeemed into comedy, and so they, too, huddle together, frightened of losing what little they have.

But here at UD we are taught that Truth is robust, great, powerful, and most importantly, bigger than any of us, that we will never master it, grapple it to the ground, possess it. But we can sally forth, Chestertonian knights, ready to try any adventure that comes our way. And we cannot really harm Truth, though we can lose our way in seeking it. We can, however, submit to truth, and because of that, we can play in it. Playfulness, then, issues from humility, and is the greatest sign of freedom. Homo ludens is the result, and perhaps the apex, of rational man, political man, and imitative man. It was UD that taught me to play again, to become as free as I had been as a child, because it shaped me into something more fully human, more fully free. Remember Chesterton: "Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him" (Orthodoxy, 159).

If you want to find a patron saint of playfulness, you probably should turn to St. Philip Neri, who might be the subject of another talk, but you could look much closer to home to the life of John Paul II. Here was a man who had seen up close every horror to which Western Civilization could descend. He considered things deeply, seriously, as a philosopher, playwright, theologian, and poet; he looked at evil and had the courage to face it down with truth and charity. And in his own long final suffering, he taught us how to die with grace and dignity. I do not want to diminish those qualities at all. And yet, of all recent popes, world leaders, and thinkers, who was more playful? Who can forget his mugging for the cameras with his fingers over his eyes, his "Woo Woo Woo" in front of thousands of teenagers, his smile, his silliness? He drew people to Rome because they could sense, even if at first only darkly, that he had gotten hold of a secret, the secret that, as once again Chesterton says, "Joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live" (159). I never could understand those who called him a strict lover of negative restrictions; John Paul played because of authority, an authority anchored in Truth and Love much larger than his own small person. He never forgot that joy is the Easter emotion of an Easter people; he never lost the image Dante creates, that the blessed souls are dancing in their circles of light.

If you'll indulge me, I will tell you my favorite John Paul story, one that speaks to his playfulness and which, not coincidentally, involves soccer. When Italy's champions came for a ceremonial visit to the Vatican in the early 1990s, --similar to the Super Bowl champions coming to the White House—the Pope paused when he shook the hand of the great striker Roberto Baggio. He looked at the tiny, pony-tailed goal-scorer and said, "Ah, Roberto Baggio. My worst nightmare." Now Baggio, the hero of all Italy, had a few years before this made a very public conversion to Buddhism. The press was all over this, often highly critical of him, in nominally Catholic Italy. Baggio, a quiet, gentlemanly, serious sort, responded, "If ever my most personal decision has ever caused you pain, Your Holiness, I ask your deepest forgiveness." "Ah, Baggio Baggio," the Pope replied, "you are forgetting that in my youth I was a goalkeeper." To John Paul, no mere soccer stud, no matter how popular, could be a worrisome challenge to Truth and Life; no Buddhist, not even Scott Crider, could threaten a man, a Church, a university, with its eyes and heart directed to the Permanent Things. It's a wonderful story of the greatness of Truth, the Pope's warm humility and humanity, and two men's mutual love for what after all is a child's game.

My wish for you, as you depart from us at UD, is first that you will leave some of your spirit behind, for we will always need it here; that you will go out into a life that is far often too busy, too technical, too reductive of the human person, and irradiate it with the spirit of truth, of humility, and of childlike wonder you have both gained and displayed here. (My son Benjamin, by the way, currently recommends roly polys as an object of study and wonder. You could do worse work in graduate school.) You will do this by keeping and deepening what the Core, the great texts, and their great teachers began for you here: by cleaving with all your reason to the truth, by humbly seeing it as larger than yourself rather than something to pin down and master, by acting with justice in the political sphere, by imitating the charity of the saints. In the midst of serious work, of the suffering that will inevitably come your way—when you must fight injustice, when a parent is dying slowly and painfully-I hope that you will continue to be fully human and dance in the freedom of play, until we are together again, nel "l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle", in the Love that moves the sun and the other stars. Until then, I shall miss you all, in all your goofy glory.

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