Small snow pellets hit my face as soon as I opened the side door of the CYO Hall the Sunday before last. I had just climbed up the stairs after our crew of volunteers finished the cleanup following the afternoon soup kitchen. That snow squall kept up for only a couple of minutes but it would not be the last one to sweep through Whitehorse on a chilly Victoria Day weekend.
Now, a scant two weeks later, spring leaves have burst out. The first May Day tree flowers scent the air. The beach volleyball enthusiasts, barefoot and in shorts, are back in Rotary Peace Park. A Yukon summer now holds us in its sway. It is time to play.
Play has deep roots in our mammalian ancestry and a key role in our own specie’s evolution. In The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits, Gordon Burghardt offers a definition of play, which includes five elements. In the animal world play “is initiated when an animal is adequately fed, healthy and free from stress or intense competing systems. In other words the animal is in a ‘relaxed field.’”
This ties into Burghardt’s ideas that play “does not contribute to current survival” and is “done for its own sake.” While play may involve ordinary life behaviours like wrestling or chasing, these actions don’t have the same intent and are engaged in “playfully.” Burghardt also offers that these behaviours are “performed repeatedly in a similar, but not rigidly stereotyped, form.”
Any number of scholars give human play a central role in the development of our core cultural constructs from poetry to law. Robert Bellah, emeritus professor of sociology from the University of California-Berkeley, in his important work Religion in Human Evolution reaches back prior to our ancestor’s development of language. In these times many tens of thousands of years ago he sees mime, song and dance as a key part of our evolution flowing from play. “Once mimetic culture had evolved, (humans) could share the contents of other minds.” This, he argues, was an indispensable step forward “without which language would never have evolved.”
Mime moves to myth with language, myth to ritual in early egalitarian hunter-gather societies which predominated for much of our collective human history before the advent of agriculture some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Moral communities bound by “powerful norms” held these small-scale societies together. Religion then grew out of the increased need generated by the size and complexity of agricultural societies. Some argue that religion provided a key a priori basis for their formation.
Bellah, at the end of his landmark 600-page book, writes: “If there is one primary practical intent in a work like this that deals with the broadest sweep of biological and cultural evolution, it is that the hour is late: it is imperative that humans wake up to what is happening and take the necessarily dramatic steps that are so clearly needed but also at present so clearly ignored by the powers of this earth.”
Professor Bellah is, of course, referring to our ecological crises. He sees, though, that we now have the capacity “of understanding our deepest cultural differences, including our religious differences in a dramatically different way than most humans have ever done before.” If we can contend creatively with these differences we just might find a collective path towards a just, environmentally sustainable future for all humanity.
Apathy, indifference, blind addiction to unenlightened self-interest and powerful vested interests also handcuff contemporary society. Maybe rediscovering the role of play in our lives will help break through these barriers and realize, as G. K. Chesterton mused that it is “not for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder” that the future we so desperately need is denied to us.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.