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Why We Need to Play More! - by Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian

Why We Need to Play More!

4 minutes

In the course of a year, all persons are aware of the weekdays and the weekends, of work days and national holidays like Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Labor Day and religious holy seasons like Christmas and Easter.

The Church calendar also marks the division between ordinary time and the feast days, solemnities, and memorials like the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and All Souls’ Day. Human life, then, has a rhythm of alternation, contrast, and change that orders the emotional state of man.

The routine and the regular cycles of business and work need variety and interruption for the renewal of emotional life and attention to the life of the spirit. Like the fire in the hearth, the heart needs to be rekindled and stirred.

Human nature thrives when this harmony of sameness and change, regularity and variety, create balance. Without this natural alternation, world weariness and the tedium of life’s monotony oppress the spirit, and “the noon-day demon” afflicts the life of the heart and soul.

Alleviating Acedia

The “noon-day demon,” a term that appears in medieval monastic literature as a symptom of the sin of sloth, is the state of apathy and dullness that seizes a person in the middle of things when the excitement of the beginning and the sense of accomplishment at the end no longer rouse the emotions.

When a monk tires of the religious life and the cell, he struggles with the noon-day demon that tempts him in the middle of the day to grow listless, slacken his efforts, and surrender to sadness.

Christian writers like Sts. Basil and Aelred, however, addressed this problem with a remedy. As a cure to boredom with religious exercises that breeds lack of fervor, they advise a change in the rule and discipline of a monastic life to combat the noon-day demon. Aelred writes,

“If the psalms become burdensome, change to reading; if this begins to bore you, get up for prayer; when you tire of these activities, take up some manual work, so that by healthy alternation you may refresh the mind and drive away acedia.”

The state of acedia (literally, lack of care in Latin)—loss of interest, boredom, listlessness, and lukewarmness—of course is not limited to monks in cells but tempts all human beings who stop living a balanced, rhythmical life and ignore the necessary alleviation and respite needed for emotional and spiritual rejuvenation.

Refreshing Mind & Emotions

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This self-evident truth about the need for the right proportion of work and play, however, does not govern many lives. When it is lacking, emotional life suffers.

When the economic realm exaggerates the importance of work, money, and worldly success, it gives the impression that human beings live in order to work rather than work in order to live. It insinuates that man’s salvation lies in work.

Even Sundays have blurred into work days, shopping days, and ordinary days instead of the Sabbath, the Lord’s Day, or a family day of leisure and relaxation. The weekend is intended not only as a respite from the drudgery and toil of work, a mere time of recuperation from the exhaustion of mind and body, but also designed for a period of rebirth and stimulation for the heart and the spirit.

The emotions also require nourishment and refreshment that mere rest—a day away from work—alone does not satisfy. The emotions have an appetite for joy that fun, recreation, friendship, festivity, mirth, conversation, and occasions of hospitality deeply gratify.

The emotions need music, dance, poetry, and the arts for the Muses to breathe new life into them. The mind needs the calm of contemplation when leisure allows time for reading and reflection. The soul needs to be lifted up to a knowledge and love of God (“Lift up your hearts”) to be at peace and to be aware that man does not live by bread alone.

Plato on Workaholics

The universal human condition demands a life of labor for people to earn their livelihoods and provide for the essential economic needs of all individuals and families. Without periodic, regular interruptions or alternate rhythms to life’s cycle of repetitious work and laborious toil, the emotions starve and the fire in the heart dwindles.

As Plato writes in The Laws,

“But the Gods, taking pity on mankind, born to work, laid down the succession of recurring Feasts to restore them from fatigue, and gave them the Muses . . . as companions in their Feasts, so that nourishing themselves in festive companionship with the Gods, they should again stand upright and erect.”

The nature of repetitious, oppressive, or inordinate work not only wearies the body but dulls the mind and deadens the heart. Instead of, as Plato says, standing “upright and erect” to behold the stars and to contemplate God, truth, beauty, and love, man degenerates to a beast of burden, a cog in a machine, or a perfunctory “workaholic.”

The Daily Gradgrind

Dickens in Hard Times, a portrait of the Industrial Revolution, depicts the dehumanizing aspects of a society that worships Mammon and elevates work to the status of salvation.

Because the children in Gradgrind Academy only study but never play, only learn facts but never read fairy tales or nursery rhymes, and trust only numbers but ignore the fancy and the imagination, they live dreary, joyless lives that lead to emotional and psychological problems.

Tom Gradgrind, a child forbidden even to watch a circus, laments to his sister Louisa, “I am sick of my life, Loo. I hate it altogether, and I hate everybody except you.”

Louisa herself complains to her brother, “I can’t play to you, or sing to you. I can’t talk to you so as to lighten your mind, for I never see any amusing sights or read any amusing books that it would be a pleasure or a relief to you to talk about when you are tired.”

Tom and Louisa have no resources to combat the noon-day demon that oppresses them as they enjoy no recreations and do not look forward to any happy occasions.

All is a Prize

As Plato observes, man is intended not to crawl but to stand, not to look down but up. He is formed not only to live in the body but also to soar with the spirit.

When he beholds the world above and beyond, he experiences the wonder and excitement that recharge the heart and resist acedia.

In the words from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The Starlight Night,” “Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies! . . . Ah well! It is all a purchase, all is a prize.”

A human life of rhythm, balance, play, and leisure stays young at heart and in love with life because it sees the light of beauty, goodness, and truth waiting for him to rejoice in them.

Baby Photo © Gyula Gyukli / Dollar Photo Club

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About Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian

Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian
The son of Armenian immigrants, Dr. Kalpakgian has taught at Simpson College, Christendom College and Wyoming Catholic College. He has authored several books and written for many Catholic publications. Meet Dr. Kalpakgian | See his Books
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