At Play in a Broken World

“Play” in its best sense never means a deadening distraction from the world, but a fuller engagement with it.

In the mornings, my three-year-old daughter puts jigsaw puzzles together. She empties one sandwich bag of pieces at a time, falls silent in careful concentration, and looks up only to say, “Look! I’m finished!” before moving on to the next one. By noon, between reading books and playing with toy ponies, she’ll have completed four or five.

When she first began this hobby, I was arrested not only by her ability but by her patience. I thought I should at least pay her the respect of leaving her puzzles in place for a day. But she only asks for a cheer as the last piece snaps in, and doesn’t complain if we have to clear them away in minutes to make room for other things. The fun is in the process, apparently, and the 64-piece fairy party can be assembled again at only a moment’s notice.

As I watch her, I realize I have to relearn what it is to play.

“Look at this beautiful house we’ve built out of blocks, girls!” I say, exultant, and — they’ve already moved on to coloring.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to swing? We’ve gone down the slide at least fifty times already!” No matter. There on the playground, I laugh to myself as I recall G.K. Chesterton’s insight:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. (Orthodoxy)

From my grown-up station at the kitchen sink or the park bench, I’ve glimpsed how a child’s vitality transforms even the monotonous into magic. Watching my two experts-in-residence, I notice that “play” in its best sense never means a deadening distraction from the world, but a fuller engagement with it.

Real play is leaning down to observe the coiling journey of an earthworm on a damp sidewalk.

Real play is sitting with a furrowed brow over a jumbled box of the fifty states, grinning as a vibrant country comes into view, piece by piece.

Real play is spinning a story from sheer imagination, and twirling because both the sunlight falling from a high window and the layers of one’s full skirt call for a moment’s delight. It takes hands with others, and trusts that the weight of the world is held up by another. It involves imaginative concentration, breathless abandon, and creativity that doesn’t count its creations too precious or rare a thing that they can’t be given away.

And I — well, I have forgotten these things.

Since midsummer, real play for me has been only tentative and mostly unthinkable, and mingled with real pain. I’ve been occupied with a mind so thickly mired in anxiety that sometimes the very act of breathing demands full concentration. The small pleasures that make each day distinguishable from the next have been engulfed by bleak billows of obscuring fear, and my writing desk — my usual arena for “play” — has withered into a holding space for receipts and untouched books. I can’t play, I’ve told my Father. Not when it hurts.

But in this season of shadow, I’ve begun to notice something else under the tutelage of my daughters.

A child will only play if there is something right with the world. Physical pain, hunger, grief, fear, terror, war — these of course silence the games, the happy patter of adventuring souls.

Like many other families, we’ve had our share of emergency room visits, and lived dark hours when play was the furthest thing from our minds. But there’s been a marked difference between this grown-up and her children in times of recovery. I stay close with an eagle eye, my thoughts busy entertaining worst-case scenarios. They rise up and ask for milk, laughing and chattering through a new day. These sounds are both a balm and a curiosity to my own fear-addled heart.

A child will only play if there is something right with the world, but that “something” does not need to be very much. Somehow laughter still rings in pediatric hospital wards and over a soccer ball in impoverished towns. Children, in fact, seem to require shockingly little to meet conditions for play: a little presence, a little love.

I ponder these things as I peel back hardened layers of exhaustion and anxiety. Lesions that I’ve developed in my trust in God are coming to light, and with much help, I’m starting to bring them to the Great Physician and regaining the peace of a steadfast mind. It’s grueling work at times. I’m discovering anew that it’s a choice to dwell in this day and not the next, to take joy simply because my Father, my Game-Changer, Is.

And I glance at my desk.

Small notebooks of scribbled ideas are stowed there, along with kind notes from friends, and two little blue ceramic sparrows who remind me that my wellbeing is my Father’s concern. They are an open invitation to pick up a pen, behold Him, and so engage more fully with life. To play.

It’s an incongruous thing to take up brokenness and rejoice — but “rejoice always,” Paul writes; “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thess. 5:16-18). The very notion of play is wrapped up in joy and trust, in the relinquishment of fear and things “too great and too marvelous” (Ps. 131:1) for me to know. Slowly I’m finding that it’s not so impossible to scribble a story with lab results and life demands looming — to take up the freedom of being God’s own, and let it glimmer gently for a world that knows the weight of worry all too well.

Our sense of wonder, our imaginations, our stories, our songs, our visual art— for Christ’s own, these signal that there is something right with the world: our Father is in it, and His Son is returning. All that we dream up and create comes from ordinary lives that know their own share of heartache and sorrow, but these will sharpen the hope we display, if we do not shut it out. Our pain is coupled with a presence that allows the celebration of our eventual Homecoming to begin now. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, this is real merriment, “of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have taken [the truth of eternity] seriously”’ (The Weight of Glory). This is what it is to play in a broken world.

We’ve intentionally slowed our pace in recent days. The girls and I scoop seeds from pumpkins and gamely attempt Yorkshire accents as we read The Secret Garden. And in the evenings I sit down to write about a ferryman who ventures away from his river, the library we are building in our home, and oases of beauty, created by others, that are grounding me in eternal things. There’s much that is right and good my world, and still will be even if circumstances go south and “the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines…” (Habakkuk 3:17-18), for through no merit or power of my own, the Kingdom of God is here.

Here, amid a hundred jigsaw puzzle pieces, and quiet moments, and slips and snippets of writing, I’m being taught to play by my children — and by my Father.


Amy Baik Lee is a writer with a background in Renaissance literature and a third culture childhood. She blogs at Sun Steeped Days. 

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