I sense that there is a levity, a light playfulness living in wisdom. Sometimes it may be as quiet as dandelion seeds blown on the wind, or soft as falling feathers in a recently vacated field. Levity. From Latin, levitas, “lightness, frivolity”. Frivolous. From Latin, frivolus, “silly, empty, trifling, worthless”. But how do we measure worth? And how do we measure meaning? British philosopher, Roger Scruton, in his documentary, Why Beauty Matters, says “Ornaments liberate us from the tyranny of the useful and satisfy our need for harmony. In a strange way they make us feel at home. They remind us that we have more than practical needs. We are not just governed by animal appetites, like eating and sleeping. We have spiritual and moral needs too and if those needs go unsatisfied, so do we,” …”if you consider only utility, the things you build will soon be useless.”
More of Scruton’s words on usefulness:
“Maybe people have lost their faith in beauty because they have lost their belief in ideals. All there is, they are tempted to think, is the world of appetite. There are no values other than utilitarian ones. Something has a value if it has a use and what’s the use of beauty? “All art is absolutely useless”, wrote Oscar Wilde, who intended his remark as praise. For Wilde beauty was a value higher than usefulness. People need useless things just as much as and even more than they need things for their use. Just think of it. What is the use of love, a friendship, of worship? None whatsoever. And the same goes for beauty.”
“Put usefulness first and you lose it. Put beauty first and what you do will be useful forever.”
There is wisdom in what Scruton is saying, and it doesn’t only apply to the area of aesthetics. Everyday aesthetics is a way of life, is a behavior orientation sprouting from the soil of a heart that is fixed on true meaning, value, beauty, truth, harmony, love, healing, and growth. In a word, Life and Light. Energy. It is a lens through which we approach reality. This relates to our topic of levity, or what might be thought of as frivolity, play. Useless. Useless is not synonymous with meaningless. Of course, these can be slippery, words whose ‘meanings’ elude the eager to understand and grasp.
Wisdom knows that there is a time to laugh, a time to weep, a time to dance, a time to mourn, a time to die, a time to be born, a time to let go, a time to embrace, a time to build, a time to tear down, a time for all things. This sounds like the kind of discernment that cannot be taught or learned via any technical, formulaic, methodical, linear, dualistic approach towards life, learning and wisdom.
These words from C.S. Lewis have long since been important to me: “We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” Merriment and seriousness. Levity and wisdom. This is an approach one can take towards each day, each moment even, which requires the vulnerability of receptive, open hands. There is a wisdom in play. Perhaps laughter and play is closer to the heart of wisdom and reality than most of us think.
The dictionary defines play as “pleasurable and apparently purposeless activity.” Here we are again, purposeless, useless. Purposeless in relation to what? Useless, how? Who defines these terms for you? How would you describe what is purposeful for you, what is valuable for you? Do you often find yourself giving time to a thought or activity that others might label as “pointless”? Play, according to Stuart Brown, is an indispensable part of being human.
One often associates childhood with playfulness and frivolity. I do not believe this playfulness needs to end with the onslaught of ‘adulthood’. One often keeps immaturity and underdevelopment with children and childhood while we keep maturity and true development in adulthood. Oswald Chambers once wrote that “Our Lord’s childhood was not immaturity waiting to grow into manhood— His childhood is an eternal fact.” I believe he was right. Childhood, and childlikeness, is not the same as childishness. I think of the depth of wisdom in children that is often touched on in poets, philosophers and appreciators of truth and beauty wherever it is to be found. Do we have the eyes to see? The hands and hearts to receive? The ability to “play into the Kingdom” that is at hand? I imagine we all have a lot of connotations and associations, some positive, some negative, with the word play.
So pick up Dostoevsky after you’ve finished spending a Saturday morning with A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Learn from and enjoy The Little Prince and Peter Pan and The Wind in the Willows as well as from heavy or dense theological and philosophical writings. May we never lose our sense of wonder. May fairytales and novels and dreams and nightmares and adventures be in the same working alphabet as theological treatises and devotional, spiritual, confessional works.
What do swingsets and jungle bars signify for you? Nothing? Something? Everything? Climb a tree. Find your way over to the next slide that you pass by and have a couple goes on it. Fly a kite. Blow bubbles. Have inside picnics on the floor in your living room. You are dared. You are dared to be creative, to “disturb the universe”, as Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock was so afraid to do.
Among the many things that children (and the childlike) have to teach the those of us who have forgotten, is the power and generativity of honest questions. Children and the childlike are most often unafraid of asking their questions out loud, and “writers of children’s literature are set apart by their willingness to confront difficult questions.” says Madeleine L’Engle. We need to recover our wondrous sense of curiosity, splendor and playfulness, our willingness to take risks (mentally, relationally, spiritually, emotionally, etc.) There is, I believe, joy and life to be found there. And joy can be just as messy as sorrow. Neither one is truly ‘containable’. Joy and grief alike are messy realities, overflowing in uncontrollable and unpredictable ways. I’m reminded of something Mary Oliver wrote, “Most things that are important, have you noticed, lack a certain neatness.”
L’Engle said “the best children’s books ask questions, and make the reader ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone’s universe.” Woe to us if we believe that wisdom and ‘seriousness’ and a sobriety of the soul is safe and secure in any true way. Life disturbs our universe. Reality brings along with its gifts and joys, holy wreckage and gracious damage. I suggest we let it.