Play



    IT is a word long discredited, but never forgotten and sure to return to honour among men. For play is not an invention of luxurious idleness, but simply one of the phenomena of earth, a necessity of our mortal state. Think of play as meaning freedom from stress, freedom from restraint. The play of a bolt or a beam in construction is often fatal; and yet without play how often a mechanism would come to wreck! The play of the forest trees in wind is their safeguard; and when an ice-storm falls on them and locks them down to the rigidity of iron, then beware of the living winds of heaven that come boisterously down upon them! Their fettered limbs snap, their poor bodies are riven and [Page 241] split, their noble heads go down to the shades and they are counted in the refuse of the world. With no give, with no relaxation, with no play, their usefulness is done; they must perish.
    The rocks may stand fast to our sight, but we can measure the enormous play of a glacier, and the ordered play of the spheres is our constant admiration. Indeed, you will find in nature that everything has play, according to the need of its being, and the higher and more complex the life, the greater the amount of play necessary to safety. As you pass from the solid and fixed frame of the globe outward toward light and warmth, think how play is given to the creatures born in the sun. First the mosses and lichens and stunted herbage of cold regions, then the more luxurious trees and grasses and waving ferns; the fish in the water; the moving rivers, the stupendous tides; the beasts that traverse the ground; the hosts of birds migrating and dancing through space; and, frailest of all the myriads of [Page 242] ephemera, those beautiful scraps of winged colour that go sailing away light as thistle-seed on the perilous adventures of the air; life, the varied and untold play of motion and colour over the surface of the dull ground, the fact of being, clothed with the phantom of beauty, – this is the flux of existence. This helped to give rise to the “Everything is flowing” of the Greeks.
    So from core to verge, from inertia to intelligence, from crude to complex, there is always a greater and greater play allowed, until we come to the region (true or fabulous) of pure spirit, where being may have its essence unhampered by place or time. We do not know much of the dominion of unincarnate soul, but we are agreed in according it the utmost latitude of come and go and in denying it all fixity save that of purpose. And we speak of the play of the mind, the free play of the intellect.
    Still with the idea of play as meaning scope, spread, activity, we know that education [Page 243] comes through achievement alone; that the building of character from habit is wrought out only through the play of the individual will. Stultify the will, prohibit its play, and you have at once destroyed its power of growth. The principle of life is movement, and stagnation is death. So that if a thing has no play, you may be sure it has no life.
    So, too, if you will follow the trail of the word into meaning of playfulness and amusement; perhaps you will not be far wrong if you declare that play means health. Play is the fine flavour of the spirit, the expression of joy. Just as we gain freedom for the play of our powers, we gain enjoyment in the playfulness of spirit. The animals play, and man in a normal, healthy state takes the universe for his playroom. To be a doleful, puritanic, unsocial Pharisee is to be a degenerate. A sour visage means debauchery of the soul, as truly as other appearances indicate bodily intemperance. To keep the Ten Commandments is not the whole business of man, not his whole [Page 244] duty; it is only a beginning, a crude makeshift of conduct; and the law of love by which they were superseded brings us nearer to perfection.
    Think of the added zest we might have if only we set ourselves to play the role assigned to us for half its proper worth. To act with sincerity, with ease, with unfailing graciousness; to add ever so little to the store of gaiety; to relieve the monotony of work; to soothe unconquerable sorrow; to go lightly and pleasantly across the boards, and leave a sense of elation and good nature as we pass; this is the method to make us not regret our exit, and, what is more to the purpose, this is the sort of play to make our fellows the happier for our acting, however small the part [Page 245].