Thursday, February 07, 2008

When play is genuine, time is suspended and we are lifted into an eternal Now

Sometimes we come closest to the gods in moments of play. When play is genuine, time is suspended and we are lifted into an eternal Now, where passing away seems to pass away. The value of play, like fine art, is intrinsic. We might say of play what Heidegger says of a rose, that it is “without why.” Always purposeless, the beauty of play is that it is not utilitarian; it is valuable because it is impractical. As Nietzsche teaches in his “Gay Science,” play, which is beyond good and evil, reveals the wisdom of unworldly folly and the folly of worldly wisdom.

Precisely because we are at bottom grave and serious human beings – really, more weights than human beings – nothing does us as much good as a fool’s cap: we need it in relation to ourselves – we need all exuberant, floating, dancing, mocking, childish, and blissful art lest we loose the freedom above things that our ideal demands of us…. We should be able to stand above morality – and not only to stand with the anxious stiffness of a man who is afraid of slipping and falling at any moment, but also to float above it and play. How then could we possibly dispense with art – and with the fool?

In our sports-obsessed world, true play is rare...
Throughout his demanding writings, Kierkegaard identifies three stages through which each person must pass as he or she progresses from immaturity to maturity: aesthetic, ethical and religious. At the aesthetic stage, life is controlled by desire and people are immersed in sensuous immediacy. In a manner reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, the life of pleasure lies in the present. Without awareness of, or concern about the future, there is no worry about tomorrow – the now is all that matters. The most obvious example of this stage on life’s way is the infant, who is a creature of immediate desire and has not yet developed a broader sense of self and self-restraint. Aesthetic life, however, is not limited to infancy but can also be found among people who seem to be mature individuals. Adults remain infantile when their lives are governed by nothing more than the pleasure principle.
At the ethical stage, people realize that life is about more than the pursuit of pleasure. They become aware of their freedom and their responsibility for their own lives. No longer completely controlled by desire, they learn to follow moral principles handed down by parents, priests and professors. For the ethical person, life is a serious business and the stakes are very high. It is our responsibility to make the world a better place by following the principles and rules established by a moral god.
While never leaving behind the pleasures of the senses or rejecting the dictates of morality, religion is, according to Kierkegaard, beyond good and evil. In a manner reminiscent of aesthetic existence, religion involves an experience of eternity within time. At the decisive moment, the eternal God enters history to redeem the believing individual by releasing him from the travails of time. This instant is the eternal Now in which time is suspended, death is overcome and, thus, passing away passes away.
As Dean Smith and I discussed these tangled issues at considerable length, we gradually began to realize that for him, religion and basketball are ethical, while for me they are aesthetic. Though a fierce competitor who never wants to lose, Dean believes that the value of the game is not intrinsic but lies in the lessons it holds for life after basketball. Always practicing what he preaches, Dean has devoted his life to defending the civil rights of others and promoting social justice for all. The game is never simply about itself but is always about life’s larger lessons.
Dean was the first to integrate the Atlantic Coast Conference and, when local restaurants would not serve his players, he accompanied them and refused to leave until they did. Several years ago my daughter Kirsten broke family ranks and went to Duke Law School (there’s that will again!). When she was writing an article about the death penalty, she called Dean and he gave her an interview about his opposition to it. What greater coup than publishing an interview with Dean Smith in the Duke newspaper!
While the final score is important, for Dean Smith, the game is really won off the court.
I do not, of course, deny the pedagogical value of sports. Throughout my youth I played baseball (first base), football (offensive guard and defensive tackle – times were different then!) and basketball (center). I have no doubt that I never would have written so many books without the discipline I learned on the field and court. But what makes a game a game is not simply the way it prepares us for the future but the way it locates us in the present. We play games for those rare moments when time stands still: the perfect contact of ball and bat, perfect angle for a clean tackle, perfect touch on a last-minute jump shot. In that instant, players do not resolutely move toward the future by following the rules of the game; to the contrary, floating freely as if released from gravity, they live as fully as possible in the present. In this moment, I no longer play but something else, something other plays through me.
I know only three other experiences that come close to this moment: losing oneself in sexual bliss, immersing oneself in a work of art or standing outside of oneself in a moment of religious ecstasy. I suspect an experience like this is what Saint Paul had in mind when he wrote, “I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). As the very sense of self melts away, time and eternity actually become one. Though this instant inevitably passes, the memory of it creates the hope it might return once again.
I always recall the lessons I learned from my conversations with Dean whenever I watch Carolina play. My friend John and I get together to watch the game: my house, when the Tarheels are at home, his house, when the Blue Devils are at home. Former President of Williams College and past Chairman of the Duke Board of Trustees, at 83 John has lost none of his zest either for the game or for life, if, indeed, the two can be distinguished. When the Heels have a bad night, I know my first email in the morning will be from John rubbing it in. When Duke falters, I always return the favor.
As professors of religion, we both know that any living religion needs its rituals so we have devised our own. We don our fools’ caps and costumes - he wears his Duke hat and sweatshirt and I wear my Carolina hat and t-shirt. While eating popcorn and drinking beer, we leave behind the gravity of the moral problems facing our world and abandon ourselves to the “exuberant, floating, dancing, mocking, childless and blissful art” of basketball. What I know, but John has yet to learn, is that the color of heaven is not Duke blue, but it’s Carolina blue. This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 6th, 2008 at 6:00 am and is filed under Games people play. SSRC Home SSRC Blogs Blog Home


Rigpa: On Nowness from ~C4Chaos by ~C4Chaos (via Glimpse @ Rigpa) February 6

The cells of our body are dying, the neurons in our brain are decaying, even the expressions on our face are always changing, depending on our mood. What we call our basic character is only a “mindstream,” nothing more. Today we feel good because things are going well; tomorrow we feel the opposite. Where did that good feeling go?

What could be more unpredictable than our thoughts and emotions: Do you have any idea what you are going to think or feel next? The mind, in fact, is as empty, as impermanent, and as transient as a dream. Look at a thought: It comes, it stays, and it goes. The past is past, the future not yet risen, and even the present thought, as we experience it, becomes the past.

The only thing we really have is nowness, is now.

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