Is there such a thing as too much play? Part 2

In an earlier post, I wrote about the contradictions we in modern society have about play. On one hand, we trivialize play and see it as a waste of time, only appropriate for children, not for adults who should be attending to more serious matters. On the other, we express nostalgia for an era when there was more time for undirected play.

The work of psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe offers a framework for understanding this ambivalence and our split views about play. In Love in a Time of Loneliness, Verhaeghe observes a sociological shift away from phallocentric patriarchy that deeply affects our identities, as individuals and as communities. He argues

The function of authority, which used to be a self-evident truth embodied in many different figures, has now disappeared…In the first half of the century…he [the patriarch or father of the family] merely assumed [authority] automatically, and it was questioned by only a few. At the beginning of the second half of this century, the balance started to tip the other way, and since the 1960s, any form of authority has become automatically suspect.

The anxiety that results from this lack of authority may explain both the over-focus on achievement–to fill the gap in authority and realize a more stable sense of identity–and the view of play as a waste of time. In earlier times, when paternal authority was clearer, gender roles were also more clearly defined. Boys were able to identify with their fathers’ power and feel secure that they, like their fathers, would someday be comfortably in charge. This is the resolution of Freud’s oedipal phase: the young boy cedes his wish to stay connected in a symbiotic union with his mother because of the promise of becoming like his powerful father.

If all manifestations of authority are questioned and questionable, what should a boy do? He could stay safely in a symbiotic union with his mother. Perhaps the contemporary phenomenon of boys who live at home into their 30s and even 40s could be in part explained by this solution to the authority dilemma. He could devote himself fervently to work in an attempt to fill the void of authority. If he is successful enough in the public sphere, perhaps he imagines that he can escape the symbiotic bond with his mother and become the authority that he fears his father is not. Could it be that the explosion of prescriptions for anti-anxiety medication, the epidemic of opiate addiction in young men, and the phenomenon of drinking to blackout that I referenced in a previous post are all, at least in part, due to the tremendous pressure a young man might feel about attempting to become a figure of authority without an object with whom to identify?

Such yearning for authority and anxiety due to its disappearance may explain Mike Lanza’s insistence that children, boys specifically, need to risk danger independently in order to separate from parents (mothers in particular). The implicit sexism in Lanza’s theory of parenting is also explained by Verhaeghe’s theory: Lanza fears that overprotective, engulfing mothers will prevent boys from separating and that play is an antidote to that. Verhaeghe might say that Lanza, himself, reflects a growing societal anxiety about the waning of patriarchal and paternal authority.

Interestingly, while Lanza argues that his parenting style is designed to support his boys’ developing sense of independence and authority, he abdicates his own. Indeed, his very parenting attitude is a laissez-faire, hands-off approach that turns his sons into powerful players while he stands idly by. As Melanie Thernstrom points out in a New York Times article on Lanza, while the children are out in Lanza’s “playborhood,” Lanza, himself, is safely inside the house, sharing a glass of wine with the other adults. He therefore typifies the modern father who no longer holds authority just because of paternity, and he even takes it one step further–he gives it up willingly.

Verhaeghe argues that patriarchy came into being in part due to a deep, underlying fear of women. Women are feared because of the tremendous power they have over us during infancy and due to the deep and powerful urge we all retain, at least on some level, to return to the symbiotic bond with mother that characterized the beginning of life. For Verhaeghe,

In my view, it is separation which is essential to becoming a human being. Separation constitutes one end of a continuum which has union at its other end. Every human being can (indeed, must) abandon his original ‘unity’–with mother, the nuclear family, or subgroup of a clan–in order to effect a new union, elsewhere, and with a different group. This is brought about on the basis of an authoritarian intervention…Within patriarchal society, then, separation is a function exercised through the figure of the father.

Verhaeghe thus argues that we are forever oscillating between the pull toward union and a pull toward separation and autonomy. Being an autonomous individual–in Verhaeghe’s words, a human being–is predicated on separating from the original union and on resisting an ancient urge to return to it. We exist, then, as individuals, but always in relation to others–most importantly, parental others.

Offering a history of the shift from matrilineal to matrifamilial and ultimately to patriarchal societal structures, Verhaeghe maintains that patriarchy is not necessary for such separation. However, some intervention in the form of social legal structures, rules or rituals is.

Perhaps that something could be play. In play, we enter a transitional space in which we can engage in creative, imaginative processes, processes that promote new ideas about self and other. In other words, a new idea about oneself can emerge in the context of play. Once we begin to conceive of ourselves as separate from the other, we can take on a separate identity, become a human being.