I recently spent a week in Honduras on a mission trip. I’ve never worked so hard in my entire life. It was hot. We didn’t always have running water. And the work was using muscles I haven’t used since I was a teenager.
The general order of the day went like this: get up, eat breakfast, work, eat lunch, work some more, and then in the evening we’d play with the kids from the orphanage. I often dreaded playing with the kids, in part because I’m not much of a kid-person, but mostly because I was so exhausted. My introvert self was worn out, and my physical body was reaching it’s limits. And to play with the kids, like most kids, meant exerting all kinds of energy. They might want me to join the perpetual soccer game, play catch, run around, or swing a jump rope. All of these things put strain on my already-sore muscles.
I was thinking about this experience this morning. I just wrote a book on importance of vacation and sent it to the printer. It’s a journal + devotional for when you’re on vacation, but it’s also an attempt at developing a theology of play.
There is one thing I have learned about play that I didn’t expect. Play requires effort. Play isn’t simply the absence of work, it’s the absence of purpose (this might sound funny, but it’s true.) We work to accomplish something important, we play without any concern for the end results, but simply the joy of the process. This doesn’t mean that play is easy.
I think our American culture has tried to limit our play to a couple of things: entertainment and rest. Both of these things are passive things. We view play as a life free of exertion. We sit and watch something. We sit and read. We sit, in a temperature-controled room eating and drinking.
There’s nothing wrong with rest, entertainment, reading, or food. But these things are not the same thing as play. And I am convinced that a good day off needs some time to play.
In short, play can be hard work. Play requires discipline. It takes the willingness to push yourself a little farther, and kick around the soccer ball with some kids, not because you have to, and certainly not because you’re getting paid to, and not even because you have some goal in mind, but just because it would be more fun and more healthy than sitting on your butt.