Saturday, May 17, 2014

Death and Play:
What We Christians Can Learn From My 4-Year Old Daughter

"Death at a Funeral - the British version." That's what Noah said when I asked him for a top pick film suggestion for a finals week shindig at the Episcopal Center. "Done," I said. My woeful ignorance of all things cinematic generally inclines me to give others the benefit of the doubt. "Death" did not disappoint. Brilliant, funny, thoughtful, and - as much or more than any of these - honest.

Perhaps the most honest aspect of the film's depiction of a dysfunctional family's gathering to mourn a beloved husband and father comes in the movie's hilarious and depressing characterization of social engagement between humans. With the exception of the main players' later collaborative efforts to hide a dead body, every human interaction in the film can be summarized as the necessary and accidental overlapping of selfish and self-interested individuals. Everyone is their own bottom-line.

Death got me thinking about a recent Kindermusik class with Annie. (Kindermusik is great time spent with Annie and, as a bonus, regularly leaves me with food for thought in other areas of life - see here and here.) In this recent Kindermusik class, we were reminded of the four stages of play development in children. Here's how one site defines them:
...solitary play, starts in infancy. In this stage, infants are exploring their environment, constantly discovering new things, and learning from them. Solitary play continues into the toddler years. The children, playing alone, are completely absorbed in what they are doing and are not paying attention to others. They may be playing near others but they are playing alone with their own toys without notice of the other children. 
Parallel play is the next stage. It is common in toddlers but can occur in any age group. Children will be in the same room with other children, they will play with similar toys, but they do not play with each other. They are observant of others and may copy how others are playing but seldom interact with them. They are playing beside them rather than with them. 
The third stage, associative play, occurs when children are about three and four years old. These preschoolers play together in loosely structured activities. Although they play together and talk with each other, they are not working together in an organized manner to create something. 
Cooperative play, the fourth stage, begins emerging in four and five year olds. As their social and emotional development matures, children play cooperatively with others. Their play has an organized structure and children will communicate with each other as they work together towards a common goal. In this play stage, children learn respect for others property, realize they may need permission to use others toys, and are more willing to share their toys.
An interesting question is which stages one would use to describe her understanding of the Christian life, both normatively and descriptively. How do people actually experience the life of faith as the people of God? Are they accidentally sharing space? Loosely associating? Cooperating toward common goals? Or, in spite of all of the 'people of God' vocabulary, do some still play alone without notice of the other children?

The brilliance of Death at a Funeral is its blurring of the lines across developmental stages and, of course, that all of the interactions are between adults. For example, though conversations are definitionally associative, there is no doubt that the characters "are completely absorbed in what they are doing and are not paying attention to others," a la the solitary play of the first developmental stage. In other words, just because I'm talking to you doesn't mean we represent a more developed state or that we are capable of achieving worthy goals. Anyone who has ever experienced - directly or through a friend - institutional cynicism or professional meeting fatigue, will recognize what I mean.

An important lesson in this, I think, is that the existence of conversations can be self-deceptive to the extent that we believe conversations or dialogues are, in themselves, superior to solitary play - simply because they involve others. But while children may be capable of self-absorption without the use of those around them, we adults are not always so developed.

A more positive lesson is that our social interactions can be improved simply by paying attention to them truthfully and acting toward them lovingly. What are the patterns of especially unsatisfying content? What are the patterns of form? Which patterns and forms routinely produce the most flourishing? Here I want to emphasize that none of the four stages is better or worse than the others - they're developmental, after all, and so each one is necessary for the existence of the others. In this case, paying attention simply involves becoming aware of an individual's or organization's disproportional tendencies toward one or more of the developmental stages and living our her permission to wonder how things could be different. By identifying our defaults in light of the other possibilities, we find concrete and constructive questions by which we can choose to step out of our comfort zones - to try new things.

Finally, since the content of backdrop of these questions is self-absorption, self-deception, and worthy goals achieved with others, I want to suggest that these conversations can be regarded as significantly more than simple self-improvement and/or steps toward human bettering; processes of play-full awareness, attentiveness, and the discovery of new possibilities may turn out to be just what it is to speak the truth in love. This is another way of saying that these new possibilities are only possibilities because God in Christ did not content God's self with loosely structured activities toward us, but working together in an organized manner, elected to create something new.

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