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Play and Creativity

Creation… long before we had the Big Bang Theory and evolution, every group of people had their own story to explain how the world came to be. Hindus, when they speak of the creation of the universe, do not call it the work of God, they call it the play of God, the Vishnu-lila (lila meaning “play). They look upon the whole manifestation of all the universes as play, a sport, a kind of dance.

Most Christians are familiar with the Creation story in Genesis 1 where the Spirit brooded over the waters and brought forth light, earth and sea and sky, day and night, birds and things that swim, then all other living things, and finally humans. But, we are much less familiar with the Biblical creation story that involves Wisdom, or Sophia by her Greek name. In the book of Proverbs, and in some of the Apocryphal writings, Sophia is present during the creation of the Universe. And what is she doing? The translation in the Jerusalem Bible says she is at God’s side and she is playing! She is delighting Yahweh and playing everywhere.

I read a sermon on this scripture by a female pastor who brought it to her group of clergy women for study, reflection and discussion. Everyone thought it was a beautiful passage, but they were a little disappointed in Sophia as a feminine divine figure. “The big objection was that she was childish; she played while Yahweh did all the hard work. Yahweh did all the important work while she was just playing around.”

What if we look at Sophia's role from a different perspective? Perhaps play is essential to the creative process!

Remember that pure play is not productive, it has no purpose or agenda, it is not competitive or judging, there are not expectations and it is absolutely not about being perfect, or even good. It is play for play's sake - for fun!

Play also helps us think outside of the box to create something new. Play doesn’t mind risking failure or being foolish. Play has a sense of wonder and excitement that fuels creativity.

Have you ever had a child by your side when you were decorating cookies, or making chalk drawings on the sidewalk and they were delighted with everything you did, so it encouraged you to try to be even more creative and do even crazier things? I feel like Sophia played the same kind of role. She was the playful, creative energy fueling the diversity and beauty of all Yahweh was doing. If there is a moral to this story, I believe it is that we’re called to play so as to bring that same playful, creative energy and delight to our lives and our world.

In an article I read on the spiritual practice of play, Fredric and MaryAnn Brussat write, “Play is the exuberant expression of our being. It is at the heart of our creativity, our sexuality, and our most carefree moments of devotion. It helps us live with absurdity, paradox, and mystery. It feeds our joy and wonder.” 

Please understand that when I’m talking about creativity and creating things, I’m not simply talking about art or music… I am literally talking about everything. The playful energy of creation can be beneficial to our relationships, cooking, cleaning, decorating, work and problem solving, gardening, dressing and so much more. Think about the possibilities!

The problem is that our responsible adult gets in the way. We decide we have too much to do to have time for play. I've often felt that I had to finish my work before I could allow myself time for tun. However, as I've gotten older, I've realized that the work is never done. And, ironically enough play is proven to increase productivity. Play stimulates our imagination, brings us delight, expands our horizons, challenges our set mindsets, removes limits, puts us in an “it’s ok to fail” frame of mind. And all of this is good for every aspect of our lives.

There is a book called Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steve Johnson.  I read an article with Johnson talking about all kinds of inventions that began as play and evolved into something that benefited humankind.

For example, in 1801, eight-year-old Charles Babbage was inspired by an automated dancing lady. As an adult and a mathematician, he thought about how that kind of machinery could be used for computation and calculation. He designed two machines that are considered the first programmable computers and he is now known as the Father of the computer.

Jacques de Vaucanson designed a number of things, the most notorious of which was an almost anatomically correct duck that could walk, quack, and waddle like a duck. You could even feed it pellets and it would poop – to the amusement of the Parisian elites. It was called the Defecating Duck. However, the most important thing he designed began with a music box. He created a programmable music box, using a rotating cylinder with little pins in it that corresponded to the song you wanted to play. He then took that same concept and used it to program a machine to weave patterns into cloth.

Here’s another one… Italian Girolamo Cardano was a gambler and mathematician in the 16th century. At the end of his life, he figured out the math to explain how likely it was that a given event would happen with dice – how much more likely it is that you will roll a 12 two times in a row, verses rolling a 7 two times in a row. Eventually those principles were refined into what is now known as the probability theory, which is used so many modern businesses like insurance and clinical drug trials. And it all came from playing dice!

In a 2010 research study, students who had 10 minutes to play with a wad of playdoh before a creative or even standard task had better output and more creative ideas.

Frivolous doodling helps people learn and remember.

Physical sports improve productivity.

Many corporations have figured this out which is why Google’s campus is scattered with ping pong, billiards and foosball tables. You can even hire a consultant to teach your business how to incorporate play time.

If you are like me and want to turn over the established order, to enliven this world, our lives, our relationships, our communities, our families, with goodness, compassion, spirituality, equality, creativity and diversity, we cannot continue to do things the way they have always been done. We must seek new ways, we must risk, we must go beyond the established borders and limits. Play is one way to facilitate this.

To quote Matthew Fox’s, “A smart person takes play seriously, for in the act of playing is the possibility of going beyond established borders. And Tao [or in my translation, the Energy of the Divine], while it is everywhere, is most likely to be found outside of borders. If you want to be with [Sacred Presence,] it is better to put aside all that is ‘important’ and ‘significant’ and just play.”

Love & Light!