Monthly Archives: February 2015

Newsletter – February 2015












   “The playing adult steps sideward into another reality; the playing child advances forward to new stages of mastery.” –Erik Erikson

   “We are inherently playful. Inherently. We inherited our playfulness from our parents, our parents’ parents, and, if you want to carry it back to the source, from life itself.” –Bernard DeKovan

   “To live with sincerity in our culture of cynicism is a difficult dance – one that comes easily only to the very young and the very old.” –Maria Popova



February greetings, Dear Friends…

This month’s Musings celebrate play and playfulness which are, as Peter Rabbit’s creator reminds us, essential to our well-being at all ages…

   “I remember I used to half believe and wholly play with fairies when I was a child. What heaven can be more real than to retain the spirit-world of childhood, tempered and balanced by knowledge and common-sense…” -Beatrix Potter

Now at 77 I find my life has become ‘playing’ almost all the time, and what a gift this is! It doesn’t seem to matter what I’m doing – exercising, meditating, washing dishes, mowing the lawn, reconciling bank statements – I feel like I’m playing, and this feeling reminds me of the Zen proverb:

   “Before Enlightenment… chop wood, carry water.
     After Enlightenment… chop wood, carry water.”

Earlier in life I saw most of these as work I would at best avoid or at least get done with so I could play. Now I experience the same ‘work’ as ‘play’. They haven’t changed, but how I look at them has…

   “And that has made all the difference.” -Robert Frost

Still, after so many decades of striving to “achieve,” it can be difficult to recognize, and accept, that ‘playing’ is a legitimate centerpiece for my maturity. It’s reassuring to know I am not alone in this difficulty…

   “We have been taught to distrust play. Worse, we have been taught that we are not and should not be playful. We have been taught that play is childish, immature, destructive. Taught by people who have themselves lost the path, who were themselves taught by people who believed that fun was, can you believe this: sinful. Taught by people who have inherited a broken culture where common sense has been replaced by common senselessness. Taught that if we work hard enough and long enough and live a life that is dull enough, we will be rewarded – when fun is the reward.” -Bernard DeKoven

   “It is utterly false and cruelly arbitrary… to put all the play and learning into childhood, all the work into middle age, and all the regrets into old age.” -Margaret Mead

These are the dark fruits of the Protestant work ethic.

Growing up with such an ethic, of course we learned to ‘distrust play’. And so we naturally end up with regrets for believing that working hard to ‘live a life that is dull enough’ will get us rewarded.

Despite all my conditioning, it’s still been natural for old Father William to play throughout my life, and I’ve enjoyed that life thoroughly – most of the time. Those occasions when I stopped enjoying were when I got caught up in taking life seriously and deciding play was immature and beneath my new status as an ‘adult.’

I can remember distinct periods in my life when I surrendered my natural ability to play in order to “amount to something.” The first was when I went to university (1956-60), the second was when I thought I had to save the world (1964-71) and the third was when I started my consulting business (1976-80). When I look at these numbers, it startles me to realize that I spent a huge chunk of my time from 18 to 42 being serious and depressed – and I’m not even counting the many relationships I struggled with, too.

All these times had some things in common:

   – I was in a new environment or “game”;

   – I knew I didn’t know how to play the new game and was very insecure;

   – I believed I needed to be more grown up and serious in order to succeed;

   – I became depressed and dysfunctional.

Here’s a story about each that may have echoes in your life, too…

My university years seduced me into believing a number of dumb things. The main one was I needed to be, and demonstrate, I was smarter (cleverer) and more successful (popular) than other people. This stuck with me for many years beyond 1980. But demonstrating one is cleverer than others is not often a path to being either popular or a success. So while my inflated ego insisted on interpreting my life as successful, I still spent a lot of time depressed and dysfunctional.

   “The opposite of play is not work. It is depression.” -Brian Sutton

I wish I’d understood Brian’s wisdom back in the early 60s when I experienced terrible depression and had no framework for coping with it. Then I stumbled into teaching English to high schoolers and began to play again. I played with literature writing, drama, the curriculum and, most importantly, the students. Those were some of the best years of my life!

Then I let myself get caught up in being serious again – and there was a lot to be serious about: Civil Rights, Vietnam, the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Selma, and on and on and on. How could anyone possibly play when the world had become so cruel and evil? How could any sane and decent person not be depressed?

Somehow my instinct for self-preservation was still alive and took me to California in the early 70s where I was gifted with San Francisco, hippies, and the human potential movement, all of which made playing legitimate again. And I did play, moving through many wacky worlds and joining Vermont’s Prickly Mountain Community in 1976. It seemed I might have found another Nirvana to play in.

But once again I gave up a lot of my playfulness to ‘amount to something.’ I needed to earn a living. Thinking I’d just sign up with another college, I found that same idea had inspired multitudes of others, and I could not find a job. Then a fluke occurred. I’d lived in Corning, NY, for the two previous years, and managers at The Glass Works, who’d seen me present while there, asked me to develop and teach a creativity course. What a life-saver this was! They paid me $250 a day, and that was more money than I’d dreamed of as a teacher back then. Then word-of-mouth added Smith-Corona as a client, and my consulting business was born.

More clients paid bigger and bigger fees, the venues became posh and the status of those attending reached the top levels of major corporations. This was VERY SERIOUS business! I was very successful in the eyes of the world, and my now enormously inflated ego took over most of my life, shoving my true and playful self way into the background. There is nothing like believing one is VERY IMPORTANT to disable our natural playfulness.

But, once again, the universe provided. My lovely wife saw more clearly than I what I had become, and left me. This was shattering, and shattering was just what my inflated ego needed. Was it difficult and painful? Of course. Was it necessary? I believe so. Was it beneficial to all? Absolutely. Now, 25 years later, Nancy is married to Don who has become one of my closest friends, and I am married to Donna who is closer to our very extended family than I am. Most importantly, we are all one family and choose to be – and play – with each other whenever we can.

What I can see clearly now is how the stress I experienced in each situation triggered my unconscious Protestant work ethic as my primary survival mechanism. In simple words it said, “We are in crisis here – SERIOUS UP!” So I did. And in each case the result was illusion, ego inflation and depression. How much easier, more fun and probably productive it would’ve been to just keep playing all along way.

And there are real reasons our ancestors were so suspicious of playing. My great-grandparents and their children lived pioneer lives where survival was regularly at risk. Living through two World Wars and The Great Depression, mom and dad had much less permission to play than I did growing up in America’s plentiful post-war years. And given their expanding knowledge of themselves and their world, my children and their children are freer to play than ever before.

This is why it’s so important for me to share what I’ve learned and am learning with my descendants. We all need to live in our present, not our past, and we elders can best help following generations by honestly sharing how our pasts were relevant for us – and how irrelevant parts of them may be for those who come after. Such openness and vulnerability will increase intergenerational understanding and compassion so we can bridge the ageism cultures inflict on very young and the very old…

Much love, FW

PS: Good friend and proofreader Ronn raised this question…

Hi FW – I like the focus and articles on play – very important reminders especially in “retirement” when we have so many options for our time and many voices suggesting we need to be serious now to do good in the world. I haven’t had time to read all the articles yet, but do wonder if your Musings over-simplify the up and downs of your life periods as either playing or giving up the idea of playing when so many other factors “play” a role too. Would a given period really have been much different if you had continued being able to play?  Maybe it is just hard for me to picture you not playing!  Could you add a few sentences about how it would have looked and what you could have done specifically to keep the playfulness through the period of successful consulting (for example) – what does hindsight tell you about how you could have been BOTH serious and playful?

Leave it to Ronn to catch me in suggesting an EITHER/OR instead of a BOTH/AND! He’s absolutely correct, of course, so my response will likely be unsatisfyingly equivocal, but here goes.

The spirit of the Zen proverb quoted earlier seems the key to me:

   “Before Enlightenment… chop wood, carry water.
    After Enlightenment… chop wood, carry water”.

Identical aspects of life can be seen completely differently, in this case BOTH ‘seriously’ AND ‘playfully’. How they are seen is our choice of a point of view. It is only with maturity that we begin to realize we can choose our point of view and thereby the reality we inhabit. The choice was theoretically always available, but, until we come to believe that’s so, the choice is not there for us.

Now a digression. The Yin/Yang symbol represent the synthesis of EITHER/OR’S into BOTH/AND’S by bringing the apparent opposites of black and white into a singular wholeness. And, in the black is a small circle of white, and in the white is a small circle of black; these symbolize each always contains it’s opposite and is becoming that opposite. My experience is that every time I think I’ve discovered the ultimate synthesis – the ultimate BOTH/AND I have only arrived at a higher level half of a new EITHER/OR which, with further maturity, I may choose to see as a new BOTH/AND possibility.

So Ronn is absolutely right to catch me in this one.

Still, I find it useful because ‘playing’ helps me see both EITHER/OR possibilities and realize I can choose either one at any time. In other words, being ‘playful’ enables me to make a choice – but being ‘serious’ never allows the playful choice. That’s why I’m promoting ‘playing’ – not because it’s a ‘right way,’ but because it makes my life better…

PS #2: This issue focused on a single theme – Play & Aging – and, if you have any thoughts on one focus vs. variety of articles, please send them to




FW NOTE: This piece from Wiki gives definitions for, forms of and an historical overview of play. It also points to many sources for exploring the range of possibilities for ‘playing’…

In psychology and ethology, play is a range of voluntary, intrinsically motivated activities normally associated with recreational pleasure and enjoyment.[1] Play is most commonly associated with children and their juvenile-level activities, but play can also be a useful adult activity, and occurs among other higher-functioning (non-human) animals as well.

Many of the most prominent researchers in the field of psychology (including Jean Piaget, William James, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Lev Vygotsky) have viewed play as endemic to the human species. These psychologists all had strong beliefs on how important play was on human development. Many research methods were performed to prove their theories.

Play is often interpreted as frivolous; yet the player can be intently focused on their objective, particularly when play is structured and goal-oriented, as in a game. Accordingly, play can range from relaxed, free-spirited and spontaneous through frivolous to planned or even compulsive.[2] Play is not just a pastime activity; it has the potential to serve as an important tool in numerous aspects of daily life for adolescents, adults, and cognitively advanced non-human species (such as primates). Not only does play promote and aid in physical development (such as hand–eye coordination), but it also aids in cognitive development and social skills, and can even act as a stepping stone into the world of integration, which can be a very stressful process.


The seminal text in the field of play studies is the 1955 book Homo Ludens in which Johan Huizinga defines play as follows:[2]

   “Summing up the formal characteristic of play, we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress the difference from the common world by disguise or other means.”

This definition of play as constituting a separate and independent sphere of human activity is sometimes referred to as the “magic circle” notion of play, a phrase also attributed to Huizinga.[2] Many other definitions exist. Jean Piaget stated, “the many theories of play expounded in the past are clear proof that the phenomenon is difficult to understand.” [3][page needed]


Play can take the form of improvisation or pretence, interactive, performance, mimicry, games, sports, and thrill-seeking, such as extreme or dangerous sports (sky-diving, high-speed racing, etc.). Philosopher Roger Caillois wrote about play in his 1961 book Man, Play and Games and Stephen Nachmanovitch expanded on these concepts in his 1990 book Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art.[4]

Structured play has clearly defined goals and rules and such play is called a “game”. Other play is unstructured or open-ended. Both types of play promote adaptive behaviors and mental states of happiness.[citation needed]

Often sports with defined rules will take place within designated play spaces, such as sports fields where, in Soccer for example, players kick a ball in a certain direction and push opponents out of their way as they do so. While appropriate within the sport’s play space, these same behaviors might be inappropriate or even illegal outside the playfield.[2]

Other designed play spaces can be playgrounds with dedicated equipment and structures to promote active and social play. Some play spaces go even farther in specialization to bring the play indoors and will often charge admission as seen at Children’s Museums, Science Centers, or Family Entertainment Centers. Family Entertainment Centers (or Play Zones) are typically For-Profit businesses purely for play and entertainment, while Children’s Museums and Science Centers are typically Non-Profit organizations for educational entertainment.

The California based National Institute for Play describes seven play patterns:[5]

– Attunement play, which establishes a connection, such as between newborn and mother.

– Body play, in which an infant explores the ways in which his or her body works and interacts with the world, such as making funny sounds or discovering what happens in a fall.

– Object play, such as playing with toys, banging pots and pans, handling physical things in ways that use curiosity.

– Social play, play which involves others in activities such as tumbling, making faces, and building connections with another child or group of children.

– Imaginative or pretend play, in which a child invents scenarios from his or her imagination and acts within them as a form of play, such as princess or pirate play.

– Storytelling play, the play of learning and language that develops intellect, such as a parent reading aloud to a child, or a child retelling the story in his or her own words.

– Creative play, by which one plays with imagination to transcend what is known in the current state, to create a higher state. For example, a person might experiment to find a new way to use a musical instrument, thereby taking that form of music to a higher plane; or, as Einstein was known to do, a person might wonder about things which are not yet known and play with unproven ideas as a bridge to the discovery of new knowledge…


Although adults who engage in excessive amounts of play may find themselves described as “childish” or “young at heart” by less playful adults, play is actually an important activity, regardless of age. Creativity and happiness can result from adult play, where the objective can be more than fun alone, as in adult expression of the arts, or curiosity-driven science.[15] Some adult “hobbies” are examples of such creative play. In creative professions, such as design, playfulness can remove more serious attitudes (such as shame or embarrassment) that impede brainstorming or artistic experimentation in design.[15]

Imaginative play and role play may allow adult individuals to practice useful habits such as learned optimism, which is helpful in managing fear or terrors. Play also offers adults the opportunity to practice concepts that may not have been explicitly or formally taught (e.g. how to manage misinformation or deceit). Thus, even though play is just one of many tools used by effective adults, it remains a necessary one.[16]

See the entire article and references here:




FW NOTE: This is another source for learning about the power and necessity of ‘play’ and will be very interesting to parents…


Take a moment to “consider what the world would be like without play. It’s not just an absence of games or sports. Life without play is a life without books, without movies, art, music, jokes, dramatic stories. Imagine a world with no flirting, no daydreaming, no comedy, no irony.”

When we try to imagine this possibility, we begin to understand how much play is integrated into our lives. We also start to think about its significance and the importance of fostering its existence.

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul was released last month. Play was written by Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play in California. A medical doctor, psychiatrist and clinical researcher, Brown has dedicated his life to the study of play.

While many people think of the subject of ‘play’ as a topic reserved for children, Brown carefully crafts this book to expand the subject. We play, says Brown, because of a biological drive – it is necessary for our survival. He explains how play is both vital to humans from an evolutionary biological perspective and a philosophical standpoint. But don’t let the academic lingo deter you. Play is written in an accessible way by outlining the academic research and combining it with relatable stories.

Parents will be interested to read about the role of play in their child’s development. Brown warns against imposing adult-like schedules or restrictions on children’s play. Childhood is where play is of utmost importance. It is a time where the foundations of play – experiencing a joy of life – are laid. Preventing children from experiencing this joy – let’s say, focusing on winning the soccer game versus an emphasis on being out in the sun with friends to kick a ball around – has a distinct effect on how children learn to perceive the world and live within it. “The self that emerges through play is the core, authentic self.” Children need to have opportunity to create their own play without adult interference.

Parents of teenagers will also be interested to learn about the role of play in adolescence, a time that the Greeks called ‘sophomore’ and which Brown reveals means ‘wise-foolish’. He writes about how teens cope with a whole new growth in brain development. Encouraging play at this age is vital. Through play, teens develop healthy neurological patterns and engage in activities that will “contribute to long-term life-satisfaction.” Again, Brown warns against parents who focus on adult ideas with their teenagers. For example, too much of an emphasis on career planning and entrance to university can limit a teenager’s opportunity to pursue their own interests. Brown explains that an overly rigid pursuit of goals can inhibit growth. He encourages not five or 10 year plans, but nurturing openness to emotional interests then following those leads.

Whether you are a parent or not, Play will inspire any reader to think about how they can play more in their lives. Brown includes a chapter titled, ‘the opposite of play is not work.’ He reminds us that work can also be play, as long as it brings us joy. He writes about the inherent need in all of us for variety and challenge. When we have that in our lives, our work can be play.

Brown also takes a look at the role of play in relationships. He cites a study done by Arthur Aron of State University of New York. Aron examined the role of play in couples. He concluded that play helps people maintain balance in their relationships. A little risk or novelty in play as a couple goes a long way to bringing two people closer together. Making time to try out new things together – to play together – can help couples be happier and better endure challenges to their relationship.

Interestingly, Brown includes a chapter on what some might see as the dark side of play. He points to issues such as gambling, addiction to video games, bullying or the overly competitive player. Brown argues that if we are to acknowledge a dark side to these activities, then they are no longer considered play. Play that is domineering or compulsive is an activity under the “false flag” of play.

Play concludes with a sort of ‘how-to’ chapter. Brown warns that if we are living without joy – through our work, family or otherwise – play can be the conduit to rediscovering that joy. He emphasizes the importance of play to our world and humankind: “play is our culture, in the form of music, drama, novels, dances, celebrations, and festivals. Play shows us our common humanity. In shows us how we can be free within societal structures that allow us to live with others. It is the genesis of innovation, and allows us to deal with an ever-changing world.”

While Brown’s first-person approach felt paternalistic at times, it didn’t over-shadow the value of the content. I did find Play markedly American in its cultural references and sports analogies. But if readers can look past the American orientation, this book will undoubtedly motivate readers to think differently about the topic of play. Play will inspire readers to seek out play in their own lives and develop a belief that play should be elevated as an activity that is more than just a frivolous pursuit.

Play is a wonderful introduction to an interdisciplinary academic topic that is embedded in all lives. The book builds a case for understanding the role of play in the evolution of humans, as an aid to building cohesive communities, and as a tool to finding joy in one’s own life. We all need play in order to lead a ‘good life;’ “play is what allows us to attain a higher level of existence, new levels of mastery, imagination, and culture.” Play will help readers reflect on what the ‘good life’ means to them and how to live it.




FW NOTE: This is very like questioning our ‘War Ethic’ – how might our lives be different if leaders of the world’s largest corporations had been raised with a ‘Peace Ethic’?

… It’s an idea, a meme, a concept

The Play Ethic first came to me as a phrase in the early nineties, in the midst of a rehearsal with my neo-jazz band, in a moment when our drummer re-described his own ‘work ethic’. (A few minutes’ activity with AltaVista – an early search engine – would confirm that the phrase was hardly original). But as soon as I heard it, I realised that it had enough capacity in it to serve as a headline bringing together a wide range of interests of mine – cultural, technological and political.

Certainly as the Nineties progressed, the idea that computers and networks were making our societies more open, our institutions more transparent, and our civic and creative voices more prominent, began to increasingly excite me. Guided by magazines like Wired and Mondo 2000, and academics like Manuel Castells, I began to explore the nascent Web – exulting both in the diversity of the voices on there, and the increasing possibilities for self-expression. 

My 80’s experience as a musician, using digital technologies like samplers and synths, had gotten me used to the idea of information as infinitely malleable, produceable and “playable-with”. With the Net, these informational powers promised to spread beyond the artist’s enclave, into workplaces, schools and the home. 

But how did the heady mass empowerment of the Net sit with the constraints, hierarchies and routines of most life within organisations? Not well, it seemed to me (I had spent a lot of the Nineties in broadcast and press environments, chafing against such limits). The sociologist Daniel Bell has often talked about the “cultural contradictions of capitalism“: where industry demands both a docile producer, and a hedonistic consumer, and is perplexed when the desirousness of the second identity saps the duteousness of the first. 

I was interested in the cultural contradictions of informationalism. If imagination, mental agility, empathy and passion are the crucial elements that distinguishes one product or service from another these days – and if the Net is the process that coordinates this – then how does that sit with top-down managements which are happiest when demarcating job roles, and counting keystrokes? The reported rates of absenteeism and disillusion among UK workers seemed to indicate the problem – that the “Protestant work ethic”, already made shaky by consumerism, was being entirely unravelled by computers and networks. 

So for me, “the play ethic” (explored in this early 1997 article) came to seem like a pointer towards how these contradictions might be resolved. What would organisations be like which encouraged creativity, open-ended learning and experiment – the essence of play – as preferred characteristics for their employees or colleagues? What kinds of products, services and actions would these “players” generate? In the late nineties and early oughties, I began to gather and note examples of these players’ enterprises – and as I wasn’t finding too many of them (as least not this far away from California or Helsinki), I began to reach back into history, and into other disciplines. Which led to the next event…


In mid-summer of 2000, I left my position as a section editor at the Sunday Herald (of which I was a founding editor), and began work on a web-site and long essay (eventually published as a front-cover piece in the Observer’s Life magazine, 22nd Oct 2000) which explored and developed the Play Ethic as a concept. The coverline was “why believe in work, when work doesn’t believe in you?” The essence of the argument is captured in this extract:

Welcome to the play ethic. First of all, don’t take ‘play’ to mean anything idle, wasteful or frivolous. The trivialisation of play was the work ethic’s most lasting, and most regrettable achievement. This is ‘play’ as the great philosophers understood it: the experience of being an active, creative and fully autonomous person.

The play ethic is about having the confidence to be spontaneous, creative and empathetic across every area of you life – in relationships, in the community, in your cultural life, as well as paid employment. It’s about placing yourself, your passions and enthusiasms at the centre of your world.

By clearing space for activities that are pleasurable, voluntary and imaginative – that is, for play – you’ll have better memory, sharper reasoning and more optimism about the future. As Brian Sutton-Smith, the dean of Play Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, says, ‘The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression. To play is to act out and be wilful, exultant and committed, as if one is assured of one’s prospects.’

So to call yourself a ‘player’, rather than a ‘worker’, is to immediately widen your conception of who you are and what you might be capable of doing. It is to dedicate yourself to realising your full human potential; to be active, not passive.

The play ethic is what happens when the values of play become the foundation of a whole way of life. It turns us into more militant producers and more discriminating consumers. It causes us to re-prioritise the affairs of our hearts, to upgrade the quality of our emotional and social relationships. It makes us more activist in our politics, but less traditional in their expression. And most of all, the play ethic forces us to think deeply about how we should pursue our pleasures – and how we reconcile that with our social duties.

So, just like the work ethic, the play ethic is a set of feelings and principles. But the difference between the two is huge. Work is always (to coin a phrase) the involuntary sector – the realm of necessity, where men and women have to do what they have to do. But as Sartre says, play is what you do when you feel at your most free, your most voluntary. When every positive decision you make about your life carries both a risk, and a promise, of something new and challenging taking place. This is why the play ethic isn’t ‘the leisure ethic’: the last thing it involves is slumped relaxation…

I attached a website (original version) and was overwhelmed by the reader and media response to the article – from the BBC and other news outlets, advertising agencies, government departments, arts institutions, universities, and many others. (See the Play Consultancy + Services page for a detailed history of these, and current engagements). 

But my main ambition was to leverage coverage from the article into a book deal, so that I could explore, develop and substantiate the ideas behind the Play Ethic. I secured that with Pan Macmillan in 2002. I wrote the book while maintaining a number of blogs (here and here), writing journalism around play and associated topics (notably for the Guardian), and consulting to a variety of organisations and clients. The Play Ethic: A Manifesto For a Different Way of Living was published on September 2004. (See the Play Ethic book page on this site for more information, reviews and purchase links). 

Since the publication of the book in 2004, which explored in greater depth some of the multidisciplinary scholarship around play (as well as containing reportage and autobiography), I have become much more interested in play at a theoretical and research level – partly in response to the range of academic interest I have received (scroll down the ‘Scholarship | Journalism | Commissioned Research” page for a full history of this). I agree with scholars like Brian Sutton-Smith and Gwen Gordon that the function of play in adult lives is under-examined – and when it is examined, often misdescribed (as ‘trivial’, ‘kidult’, or pure recreation).

Sutton-Smith’s evolutionary account of play as “adaptive potentiation” – the capacity of the advanced mammal to energetically test and experiment with various survival and flourishing strategies – is for me a very powerful basis for examining the forms and phenomena of play at all stages in the human life-cycle, and at all levels in human society. There are indeed other framings of the power of play from the natural sciences – particularly that of complex adaptive systems thinking, as advocated by Stuart Kauffman and Brian Goodwin – which strike me as equally powerful and profound, in recognising the centrality of play to the development of all organisms, not just human…

The full article:




FW NOTE: An ‘ethic’ is just a story we tell ourselves, and “The stories that we tell ourselves, whether they be false or true, are always real. We act out of those stories, reacting to their realness…”

To live with sincerity in our culture of cynicism is a difficult dance – one that comes easily only to the very young and the very old. The rest of us are left to tussle with two polarizing forces ripping the psyche asunder by beckoning to it from opposite directions – critical thinking and hope.

Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.

Finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving the situation produces resignation – cynicism is both resignation’s symptom and a futile self-protection mechanism against it. Blindly believing that everything will work out just fine also produces resignation, for we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better. But in order to survive – both as individuals and as a civilization – and especially in order to thrive, we need the right balance of critical thinking and hope.

A plant needs water in order to survive, and needs the right amount of water in order to thrive. Overwater it and it rots with excess. Underwater it and it dries up inside.

I thought about this recently in observing my unease – my seething cauldron of deep disappointment – with an opinion piece commenting on Arianna Huffington’s decision to continue publishing necessary reporting on “what’s not working – political dysfunction, corruption, wrongdoing, etc.” but to begin giving more light to stories that embody the “perseverance, creativity, and grace” of which we humans are capable. The writer criticizing Huffington’s decision asserted, with ample indignation, that “to privilege happy stories over ‘unhappy’ ones is to present a false view of the world.”

Let’s consider for a moment the notion of an un-false view of the world – the journalistic ideal of capital-T truth. Let’s, too, put aside for now Hunter S. Thompson’s rather accurate assertion that the possibility of objectivity is a myth to begin with. Since the golden age of newspapers in the early 1900s, we’ve endured a century of rampant distortion toward the other extreme – a consistent and systematic privileging of harrowing and heartbreaking “news” as the raw material of the media establishment. The complaint which a newspaper editor issued in 1923, lamenting the fact that commercial interest rather the journalistic integrity determines what is published as the “news,” could well have been issued today – if anything, the internet has only exacerbated the problem.

The twentieth century was both the golden age of mass media and a century marked by two world wars, the Great Depression, the AIDS crisis, and a litany of genocides. Viewed through that lens, it is the worst century humanity has endured – even worse than the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages, for those deaths were caused by bacteria indifferent to human ideals and immune to human morality. This view of the twentieth century, then, is frightening enough if true, but doubly frightening if untrue – and Steven Pinker has made a convincing case that it is, indeed, untrue. Then, in a grotesque embodiment of Mark Twain’s wry remark that the worst things in his life never happened to him, we have spent a century believing the worst about ourselves as a species and a civilization.

Carl Sagan saw in books “proof that humans are capable of working magic.” The magic of humanity’s most enduring books – the great works of literature and philosophy – lies in the simple fact that they are full of hope for the human spirit. News has become the sorcerous counterpoint to this magic, mongering not proof of our goodness and brilliance but evidence of our basest capabilities.

A related point of cynicism bears consideration: Coupled with the assertion that giving positive stories more voice distorts our worldview was the accusation that Huffington’s motives were purely mercantile – a ploy to prey on Facebook’s algorithms, which incentivize heartening stories over disheartening ones. Could it be, just maybe, not that people are dumb and shallow, and algorithms dumber and shallower, but that we’ve endured a century of fear-mongering from the news industrial complex and we finally have a way of knowing we’re not alone in craving an antidote? That we finally have a cultural commons onto which we can rally for an uprising?

We don’t get to decry the alleged distortion of our worldview until we’ve lived through at least a century of good news to even the playing field so ravaged by the previous century’s extreme negativity bias.

As for Huffington, while we can only ever speculate about another person’s motives – for who can peer into the psyche of another and truly see into that person’s private truth? – this I continue to believe: The assumptions people make about the motives of others always reveal a great deal more about the assumers than the assumed-about.

This particular brand of cynicism is especially pronounced when the assumed-about have reached a certain level of success or public recognition. Take, for instance, an entity like TED – something that began as a small, semi-secret groundswell that was met with only warmth and love in its first few years of opening up to the larger world. And then, as it reached a tipping point of recognition, TED became the target of rather petty and cynical criticism. Here is an entity that has done nothing more nor less than to insist, over and over, that despite our many imperfections, we are inherently kind and capable and full of goodness – and yet even this isn’t safe from cynicism.

Let’s return, then, to the question of what is true and what is false, and what bearing this question has – if any – on what we call reality.

The stories that we tell ourselves, whether they be false or true, are always real. We act out of those stories, reacting to their realness. William James knew this when he observed: “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”

What storytellers do – and this includes journalists and TED and everyone in between who has a point of view and an audience, whatever its size – is help shape our stories of how the world works; at their very best, they can empower our moral imagination to envision how the world could work better. In other words, they help us mediate between the ideal and the real by cultivating the right balance of critical thinking and hope. Truth and falsehood belong to this mediation, but it is guided primarily by what we are made to believe is real.

What we need, then, are writers like William Faulkner, who grew up in a brothel, saw humanity at its most depraved, and yet managed to maintain his faith in the human spirit. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he asserted that the writer’s duty is “to help man endure by lifting his heart.” In contemporary commercial media, driven by private interest, this responsibility to work in the public interest and for the public good recedes into the background. And yet I continue to stand with E.B. White, who so memorably asserted that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life”; that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”

Yes, people sometimes do horrible things, and we can speculate about why they do them until we run out of words and sanity. But evil only prevails when we mistake it for the norm. There is so much goodness in the world – all we have to do is remind one another of it, show up for it, and refuse to leave.




FW NOTE: Peter Gray does a marvelous job of capturing the essence of Bernard DeKoven’s ‘The Playful Path’, and I hope he motivates you to read it and his own book, ‘Free to Learn’ as much as he did me

As the great Oaqui says: “A playful path is the shortest route to happiness.”

I’m going to tell you here about a new book by Bernard DeKoven, called “A Playful Path,” and why you should read it. But first, a couple of relevant stories.


A few years ago I had an experience that helped me see the difference between play and ‘play’. I was invited by two ten-year-old girls, whom I knew well, to play a game of Scrabble. I’ve played a fair amount of Scrabble in my life and am not bad at it. (In fact, some might even say I play a pretty mean game of Scrabble; and, depending on who says it, mean could have any of its common adjectival meanings here.) The two girls, in contrast, were complete novices. So, I saw this as an opportunity to teach; I would teach them the rules and some of the strategy of Scrabble. I would be their Scrabble mentor!

But, as it turned out, they taught me something way more important than Scrabble.

They loved the basic situation—taking turns at putting down letters in an organized way on the board, with sets of letters interlocking with other sets in crossword fashion, making interesting designs. But they had no interest at all in keeping score, and the idea of limiting themselves to real, actual words—words that can be found in the dictionary—bored them. They very quickly and effortlessly, with no overt discussion at all, and despite my initial protests, developed their own rules and strategy.

Their unstated but obvious goal, on each turn, was to put down the longest, funniest nonsense word that they could, using as many letters as possible from their rack combined with at least one letter on the board. It had to follow the rules of English phonology (or, as they would have put it, it had to sound like it could be a word), but it could not be an actual word. The object was not to score points but to make each other laugh, and laugh they did! They laughed like only two high-spirited ten-year-old girls who have long been best friends can laugh. Sometimes one would “challenge” the other’s “word,” asking for a definition, and the other would offer an hysterical definition that somehow seemed to fit with the way the “word” sounded; and then they would laugh even harder. I realized, as I pulled back and watched them and began to laugh along with them, that my way of playing was something like what we usually call work. Their way of playing was play. I realized, too, that I used to play like that, as a child. What had happened to me in the interim?


The second story is not mine, but one told by Jean Liedloff near the beginning of her now-classic book, ‘The Continuum Concept’.

As a young and adventurous woman, Liedloff was invited by two Italian men to go diamond hunting along a river in Venezuela. They had hired several South American Indians—who were not quite hunter-gatherers but close to it—as guides and helpers on the trip. They were traveling in a huge, heavy dugout canoe, and at one point they had to portage this monstrous pirogue (boat) a long distance over jagged rocks under the blazing hot sun. Here, in Liedloff’s words, is what happened:

“When it swung sideways, so heavy was the rogue pirogue, it several times pinned one of us to the burning rock until the others could move it off. A quarter of the way across all ankles were bleeding. Partly by way of begging off for a minute, I jumped up on a high rock to photograph the scene. From my vantage point and momentary dis-involvement, I noticed a most interesting fact. Here before me were several men engaged in a single task. Two, the Italians, were tense, frowning, losing their tempers at everything and swearing non-stop in the distinctive manner of the Tuscan. The rest, Indians, were having a fine time. They were laughing at the unwieldiness of the canoe, making a game of the battle: they relaxed between pushes, laughing at their own scrapes and were especially amused when the canoe, as it wobbled forward, pinned one, then another, underneath it. The fellow held barebacked against the scorching granite, when he could breathe again, invariably laughed the loudest, enjoying his relief.

“All were doing the same work; all were experiencing strain and pain. There was no difference in our situations except that we had been conditioned by our culture to believe that such a combination of circumstances constituted an unquestionable low on the scale of well-being and were quite unaware that we had any option in the matter.

“The Indians, on the other hand, equally unconscious of making a choice, were in a particularly merry state of mind, reveling in the camaraderie; and, of course, they had had no long build-up of dread to mar the preceding days. Each forward move was for them a little victory. As I finished photographing and rejoined the team, I opted out of the civilized choice and enjoyed, quite genuinely, the rest of the portage. Even the barks and bruises I sustained were reduced with remarkable ease to nothing more significant than what they indeed were: small hurts which would soon heal and which required neither an unpleasant emotional reaction, such as anger, self pity or resentment, nor anxiety at how many more there might be before the end of the haul. On the contrary, I found myself appreciative of my excellently designed body, which would patch itself up with no instructions or decisions from me.”


Now, finally, we come to Bernard DeKoven’s new book, ‘A Playful Path’. It is, for me at least, the best self-help book I’ve ever read.

Bernie—I’ll call him Bernie (which is what he calls himself), as if he’s my close friend, though I’ve never met him—is a maestro of play. He’s spent at least 45 years developing games (games that are fun, not competitive), collecting games, teaching play to those who’ve forgotten it, organizing play events including massive ones, and generally, doing his bit to increase the level of fun in the universe or make people more aware of it. One of his previous books, “The Well-Played Game,” originally published in 1978, is still in much demand and was republished in 2013 by MIT press. And now, in ‘A Playful Path’, he brings his experience, wisdom, and (especially) playfulness (and even sillyness) to bear in helping all of us, who choose, to rediscover our innate playfulness. Bernie invites us out to play—out of our culture-hardened shells to play as we humans are designed to play.


Early in the book (p 14), Bernie writes, of the playful path: “It’s not like one of those paths you read about, like a spiritual path, or anything to get religious about. It’s more like a way to be on whatever path you happen to be on at the time: a, you know, playful way. You’re walking down a street. It’s the same street you’ve walked down before. It’s not like you have to find a different street. But this time, you walk a little more playfully. You step on cracks. You walk around a tree, twice. You wave at a bird.”

Bernie says here that it’s not a spiritual path, but later on he talks about it as if, in a way, it is. I think it is a spiritual path; it’s a spiritual path I can believe in, a spiritual path that lifts my spirits like no other path I can imagine. I think what Bernie means, in saying it’s not like a spiritual path, is that it’s not something we have to seek, or work hard to obtain. We don’t have to change course. All we have to do is allow our innate playfulness to emerge. Allow it to come out; don’t force it.

In Bernie’s words (p. 17): “So when I talk and write about a Playful Path, I’m neither talking nor writing about how we can or should become playful, because we already are. Or how we can become more playful, because our playfulness is immeasurable. I’m talking, rather, about trusting our playfulness, believing in our playfulness, having faith in our playfulness, letting ourselves be guided by our playfulness—because our playfulness will lead us back to life itself. All of life. As much life as we can let in. To the embrace of all-embracing life. To, yes, joy.”

Bernie suggests that we start by simply noticing the playfulness and fun around us and already in us, whenever it emerges, and that we allow ourselves to experience it. The book is chock full of games and techniques that can help us appreciate our playfulness (where appreciate means not only enjoy, but also expand upon, as in the financial world’s use of the term), but there is no implication that we have to use these games or techniques. Whatever works for us works for us. Bernie just gives us ideas, in a style that almost automatically leads us to think of ways that we are already playful and how we can allow more of our playfulness to emerge.

He writes (p. 34), “You don’t have to play to be playful. You don’t need toys or games or costumes or joke books. But you do have to be open, vulnerable, you do have to let go… Playfulness is all about being vulnerable, responsive, yielding to the moment… You are loose. Responsive. Present. You have to be present to enjoy the sunrise, to delight in the light of your child’s delight, because otherwise you simply aren’t there to catch it. It goes by you as if it and you aren’t even there.”


We are all born to be playful, to follow a playful path, but most of us, in our culture, lose sight of it along the way. Why do we lose it? According to Bernie (p 17): “We have been taught to distrust play. Worse, we have been taught that we are not and should not be playful. We have been taught that play is childish, immature, destructive. Taught by people who have themselves lost the path, who were themselves taught by people who believed that fun was, can you believe this: sinful. Taught by people who have inherited a broken culture where common sense has been replaced by common senselessness. Taught that if we work hard enough and long enough and live a life that is dull enough, we will be rewarded when fun is the reward.

Bernie suggests that such teaching begins with full force in first grade (though I might add that maybe now it begins with kindergarten, or pre-kindergarten). He writes (p. 227), with perhaps just a bit of exaggeration, “For most of us, the last time we exercised our capacity for generating fun was around the end of the first week of first grade.


School is a big part of what teaches us not to be playful. Near the end of the book (p. 242-243), Bernie asks us to imagine, with him, how school might be different, how it might be what he calls “The School O’Fun.” In his words:

“This place that we’re imagining probably has no grades – there’s no K-12, freshman to post-graduate, there’s no A-F, failing or magna cum summa. Kids, students of all ages can be found together, talking, painting, building, reading, writing, experimenting, playing, even. There aren’t any teachers – but rather people who have found deep, profound fun in doing whatever it is that they do: artists, scientists, mathematicians, healers, thinkers, each brought to their station in life by the fun they find in their work.

“Let’s dare to imagine that the whole school isn’t even about learning, but about fun. Not even about games or play or art. And if there’s a learning component to it all, it’s about having fun, finding fun, creating fun, discovering fun. About discovering what is really fun for you – really, really fun. And then discovering what is really fun for other people. And then about discovering what is really fun for you and the people around you.

“Suppose that the closest equivalent you can find to a math class is a conversation you have between you and someone who loves math, who spends as much time as she can find playing with numbers and theories of numbers and, OK, so maybe she does have a Nobel Prize in, what, topology? But she’s in it for the fun, entirely. And when you talk with her about math, she talks with you about the fun of it all.

“And the people you do art with, and read literature with, and explore dance with, and science with, and politics, and, well, you get the picture. All for fun.

“I think this would be a place where a lot of learning would happen. A lot more than the learning that supposedly happens in our accredited institutions of learning. I think this kind of learning would be far more profound than the actual topics or disciplines that people play with together. I think the learning would be about our selves as much as it would be about the world, about each other as much as about a field of study. I think it would be a place where a lot of inventing would be happening – inventing of new fields of study, of new ways of teaching and learning and sharing, of new paths to play, new definitions for what it means to become a fully functioning human being.”

Wow. Amazing. What a wild dream. Might anything like this school actually exist? [If you are wondering, see my blog post here.]


The last main section (before the appendix) of Bernie’s book is entitled Fun. A question he asks here is what is it that we experience when we experience fun. I like his tentative answer. He suggests that, perhaps, what we experience is the feeling of freedom. In his words, “Maybe, I’m asking, maybe it’s the freedom itself that’s fun. Like people sitting in the street, playing dominoes together in the aftermath of a flood, just because they can, just because it frees them a little from the vicissitudes of it all. Not just that you have the ability to free yourself like that which is gift enough, amazing enough but maybe because freedom itself is fun. Maybe fun itself is freedom. Maybe that’s why it’s so much fun to watch kids at play. Maybe that’s why we think kids are having so much fun. Or puppies for that matter. Because they seem so free from fear and worry and hunger and illness. Or young springboks springing the way they do, seeming freed from gravity. Maybe it’s the freedom.

When we play together, we are free together, and that multiplies our freedom and fun. Bernie calls it coliberation. I like that. Collaboration, in play, is coliberation.


If you read Bernie’s book, which surely you should, don’t omit the last section. He entitles that section “Appendix,” but it isn’t like a typical appendix (it’s not where all the boring stuff is put). In Bernie’s appendix, the book gets wild and especially fun, as he talks about the various playthings and playmates inside our heads, in little sections with such titles as Your inner seesaw, Your inner sandbox, Serious and Silly play hide and seek with God, Serious and Silly meet Naughty and Nice and learn to play kick the can, and Silly plays grownup.

A companion, with Bernie throughout the whole book, is a spiritual entity referred to as “the Oaqui.” I love the fact that this god of play, if you will, has a name that is pronounced “wacky.” Playfulness is bound up with humility; it can never take itself or even its god too seriously. Each major section of the book starts off with a quotation from the Oaqui. I end, now, with a few of them:

   “A playful path is the shortest road to happiness.”

   “It’s easier to change the game than to change the people playing it.”

   “…for the truth will make you laugh.”

   “Ask not what fun does for you. Ask rather what you do for fun.”

   “Play is how the mind minds, and how the soul soars.”

And here’s my favorite Oaqui saying:

   “In the beginning it was fun. In the end, it was all for fun. And in between is where it tickles most.”


What do you think? What helps keep you on a playful path? What has led you off of it, or led you to stop noticing the playfulness inherent in your path? Or, do you disagree with the whole premise here, that play is how the mind minds and how the soul soars? This blog is a forum for discussion, and your stories, comments, and questions are valued and treated with respect by me and other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your thoughts and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions (and, for this post, playful ones too), if I feel I have something useful to say. Of course, if you have something to say that truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email.


For more about freedom and play, see Free to Learn. (My little advertisement for my own book. 🙂

Bernard Louis DeKoven (2014). A Playful Path. ETC Press.

Jean Liedloff(1977). The Continuum Concept, rev. ed. Knopf.




     IT’S JANUARY 1940…





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