Play

Howard Chapelle’s American Sailing Craft

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.

Carl Jung, Memories Dreams & Reflections

I collected this quote and began this post because I’ve long felt the connection between play and creation. I wrote about it in Designer & Client. It’s long been my own internal justification for putting so much effort into boats when the financial rewards have been so slight and the field flooded by excess, overcome by a squandering of resources that might be better used elsewhere. I’ve felt that, as with art, recreation is an opportunity to challenge one’s assumptions and to follow one’s desires outside the confines of necessity. This always felt important to me as a counter to the insistence from so many quarters that we be “practical.” This pursuit, while rarely taken far, is one of the few ways we have available to us to break out of habit and step out into something new. Once we begin to allow ourselves to ask simple questions like, “Would this make me happy?” we may begin to look at how reflecting on these basic human impulses might affect how we approach other aspects of our lives. 

It’s a truism that when some people go sailing they end up leaving their old lives behind, that they chose to “escape.” We don’t put much thought into what this means at either end. Why does someone suddenly want to escape their previous life? And why does it take something like sailing to get people to consider these questions in the first place? This opens up another question, Why do they stop at an escape? Do they? Or is that just a convenient way for those of us left behind to characterize it, to maintain our sense that there’s nothing much in what they’ve done but the expression of a quirk?

These questions nestle together. Engaging with boats would be justified if all it did was open this line of questioning. It does more. It gives us a path towards answers.

“(We) live lives of quiet desperation!” Thoreau’s quotation is well known. Most people allow its sentiments a certain shrugging acceptance. The next step seems to be left begging. If it’s true, then why don’t we do much about it?

The answers to this challenge usually come around to a feeling that we are trapped in our lives. We would do something else, if we could; but we can’t. When pressed we admit we wouldn’t have any idea what else we could do.

Here is how play can help us break through the web of habit and external necessity we find ourselves trapped in to find what Jung describes as our “inner necessity, the object that we love.” While so much of our lives seem circumscribed; within recreation there is a crack through which we may allow ourselves to approach these questions, however briefly or safely buried within marginal categories like “hobbies” and “sports.”

We may say we “love” stamp collecting, or bowling. These don’t often lead someone to change their life. What’s different about boats is both that they give us something huge to love, because they immerse us in experiences of the world unmediated by our day-to-day habits; and because they require so much of us. These two considerations work together to draw us in deeper and deeper. We fall into what might be described an obsession, although it’s important to distinguish between this and dedicating one’s life to tobacco, or alcohol, or stamp collecting, or bowling, or golf; all obsessions in that they are falls into a set of repetitive behaviors that distance us from life; while boats may lead us to ways to integrate disparate aspects of our lives and to integrate ourselves within our world.

For many it doesn’t rise to that level. It remains a form of low-grade obsession, a way to pass time more or less stereo-typically in between time spent stereo-typically in the pursuit of what are considered life’s necessities. Or we escape from our old lives, but then fail to replace our previous existence with anything but a repetitive immersion in a new set of poorly integrated behaviors. We fail to achieve a new integration that would be more meaningful than the one that was left behind. This is hard, but the potential is always there in every encounter with a boat’s sweet shape, or the tickle of a breeze on our cheek as we puzzle out the best lay for a tack.

That following boats can lead to a short-circuit of the old without finding a better new doesn’t condemn the whole enterprise. The same can be said of any means to find deeper meaning or greater satisfaction. No first step guarantees a successful result.  For me what makes boats so powerful as potential vessels of transformation is that to engage with them is to enter into the possibility of finding avenues for satisfaction and paths to integration. While many other possible focal points may lead us into strictly physical, or intellectual, or emotional, or even spiritual, endeavor; boats have the capacity of engaging us on all of these fronts. This “oceanic” quality is intrinsic to boats. This recognition is what opens us to their possibilities as vessels of transformation.

This site revolves around boats. Horizons of Significance focuses on our predicaments living in these “difficult times.” In that pursuit I’ve run into the value of improvisation. We have evidence all around us of how the urge-to-plan and the will-to-control have failed us. We face instability on so many fronts that it is finally becoming apparent that this approach has reached its limits. If we are to proceed we will need to develop a comfort with uncertainty and greater abilities to improvise.

The paradox involved in changing one’s focus from control to improvisation is that the process requires a pursuit of self-mastery. The urge-to-control is strongest when we lack a discipline that helps us fight it off long enough to begin to get good at improvisation. Of course this is what an old-fashioned childhood was all about, before it was squashed by the reach of the will-to-control down to the youngest of us, where every act must now justify itself as an item on a checklist on the path to high status and power. We need sages like Jung and “experts” of all kinds to give authority to impulses we all have as children; to go off into a world beyond imposed constraints to play, to find ways to order our lives to our own liking outside of presupposed patterns. Boats give us a wide range of opportunities for this kind of play in contemplations and activities that stretch us.

Boats are a marvelous stage for our play. They require us to form them, build them, sail them, maintain them. In return they give us so much at each point. They take us along on an internal journey as they take us beyond conventional realms to face elemental conditions and pivotal situations. We are confronted with immensity of life, of space; and we journey to new places populated by new people – even when we’ve just crossed a harbor to step ashore and find the familiar transformed by a new viewpoint, the frequent result of even the humblest “voyage” in the least prepossessing craft.

This potential is clarified for us in difficult times. Superficial justifications that trap us in convention erode when we are faced with straightened circumstances. Whatever had seemed inconsequential, even as it squandered and “spent” our precious time and life, looms with increased import. Do we really want to do what we’ve “always” done? It gets harder and harder to ignore this question. Meanwhile boats sit there quietly in our imaginations drawing us to them and a realm of play that may lead us to our “inner necessities,” to the “object of our love.”

 

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Play

    1. Ben,

      Thanks for the direction to Huizinga. I’d heard of him, but haven’t read his work.

      I don’t know what it says about my Great State of Rhode Island, but the Ocean State Library System doesn’t have his books!

  1. Thanks for another deeply thoughtful post. The pleasure of boating as a deep activity comes across clearly, smartly, analytically. Not really the same as bowling yet hard, sometimes, to articulate why. I like the emphasis on distinguishing “obsessions” that distance us from (or allow escape from) life … versus that which offers a more fulfilling or faceted engagement with life.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      Obsession is one of the many terms that are thrown around to level distinctions and in effect paralyze our ability to make useful judgements. Something that leads to greater engagement with life – while it is doing so – is not an obsession, it may be a calling, or a mission, but not an obsession.

      Any activity can be abused. At that point it begins to remove us from life….

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