The Play Impulse Helps Us Maintain Our Humanity

What does it take to abandon the structure of your life and jump into an abyss of possibility and uncertainty?

“The creative adult is the child who survived,” Dave Itzkoff writes as the epigraph to Robin, his biography of Robin Williams, a fitting aphorism to describe a man gusting with whimsy and rattling wit. Williams’s life was an aria to play, that state of being we so often deny or denigrate. Language only presented him with limitations, governors of his boundless energy that he nonetheless also brought under his rule. His physical flickers and inter-penetrating barbs existed as heaves of being, generated from some obscure, ludic flash from the depths of Williams himself. He existed on a social and linguistic precipice, yoking himself to his audiences through the threat (the ecstasy) of the playful plunge.

Williams’s style may only be called childish because it was a manifestation of uncorrupted play, a mode of being in which the child (i.e. the un-self-conscious human) is able to dither and disturb, pervert and display, all in a kind of whip-quick associative game. Any condescension or resistance stems from jealousy, a will to play jaded by the world.

Notice: it is easy to articulate Williams’s venerable leap into lifelong recess, but almost impossible to actualize it. As a writer of a sorts, nearing the end of his college life, the creative life at once exhilarates and terrifies me, and the terror comes mostly from economic anxiety. Every graduate faces the economic uncertainty of solo-living, of rent and food and Netflix subscriptions foisted upon them like a tidal weight. Do we compromise, go into “plastics,” as Ben Braddock was advised in The Graduate?

Perhaps, but we all must persist in play. The attention and maintenance of our play impulse, however manifested, is integral. Though nominal adulthood looms, one’s identity cannot go through such a definitive re-labeling. Adulthood means a gradual accumulation of material responsibility (at first), then perhaps familial, political, etc., all aspects that wind around the vibrant core of your humanity. The implied or imposed seriousness of these new realities should not mean a bastardization of the self, a dilution or denial of pleasure and play because of some inevitable gloom pervading your life.

The aspirational creative is an extreme example: jumping from academic community to unsure return, in a life of intangible creation, promises uncertainty as reward for a holistic childishness. But extremity is instructive. The future does not have to be such a daring leap into the creative unknown, but it should include arenas of play. It could be a slow but faithful transition into compromise, where it is ok to be duplicitous if a job itself doesn’t contain the ingredients needed to maintain a spirit of play (note: there is likely no such job). One can compensate with thoughtful comportment and creative outlets. Life itself, usually colored by occupation, warrants improvisation and adaptation. Reinvention, whether as a micro-adjustment or existential pivot, waters the ancient garden inside us, that which blooms from a constant return to play.

But still, desire for comfort can leak a sticky magnetism, whispers of money, marriage and success that pit play as a corrosive agent anathema to all those things. Anxiety nibbles at the will, orienting it toward material comfort, which can lead to a capital-constructed façade of frolic.

Derek Thomson wrote in The Atlantic, in an article entitled “Workism is Making Americans Miserable,” that “work is not life’s product, but its currency. What we choose to buy with it is the ultimate project of living.” Consider that when considering a job, and wed it to my perhaps obscure and inscrutable exhortation to maintain a spirit of play, to continually inject life not with the somber platitudes of adulthood, but the invigorating, nonsensical impulses of a child. Another Thompson to wit, namely Hunter S.: “Ah, we lack the courage of our romantic convictions and thereby miss the wine of life, forgoing the very thing that makes living worthwhile.” Please, play on.