Eugene Peterson on “Play”

A friend of mine recently posted this interview on facebook:

Eugene Peterson on Sabbath

It’s an hour long interview between Eugene Peterson and Gabe Lyons which focuses on the role of “Sabbath-keeping” in our lives.  It’s a wide ranging 60 minute interview, and I’d encourage you to watch it.

The part that caught my attention was during the Q/A session.  During the interview Eugene had spoken a bit on the role of “play” in our spirituality (it is “non-necessary” which is why it’s good for us) and its connection to the life of prayer (good prayer makes “good play” possible because we’re living in a place where we know that God is running the world, which means we have the time and space to play), and so someone asked (this is about 50 minutes in):

Can play suffuse our lives like prayer does, and if so, how and why doesn’t it?

Eugene responded:

Yes it can

It can because it becomes to approach reality in a non-necessary way, that is, in a playful way

It doesn’t because we take our work too seriously… we’re controlled by management techniques which might be efficient… but, we’ve all worked with people who don’t take their work too seriously but do it really well… we need to take note of those people… if play and pray don’t work together, both of them are diminished…

There’s a lot there, so I’ll limit my reflections to these:

1) It seems to me that taking a “playful” attitude towards our work, especially for those of us who are in more “creative” fields, will enable us to do it much better.  I remember watching a TED talk last year (I can’t remember what it’s called) in which the presenter was talking about employee motivation.  The essence of the talk was that research suggested that for complex tasks that required creativity and imagination, “extrinsic” motivation actually hindered performance.  (For example: if you’re a chemist and I’m your boss, telling you that you’ll get a bonus if you discover a new compound before XYZ date will actually hinder you.)  It does this because extrinsic motivators have the effect of NARROWING the mind (which is why they’re good for really focused tasks, such as “finish 100 widgets in the next hour and you’ll get a bonus”), when what is required in creative fields is an OPENING of the mind so that imaginative solutions can emerge.

2) Part of the reason that many of us are not able to be “playful” with our work is that our relationship to it is thoroughly inappropriate (which makes our minds “narrow” towards it).  Edwin Friedman in this book and this book talks at length about the idea of “emotional triangles”.  The idea is that when any two parties in a relationship become uncomfortable with one another, they will “triangle” in a third party to defray some of the discomfort.  These triangles are not bad in and of themselves, but they can become really unhealthy.  (A good example of an unhealthy triangle would be when a husband and wife are experiencing problems, the husband develops an inappropriate relationship with a female coworker.)

But the crucial thing is that the “third party” NEED NOT be a person.  I can be an “issue”.  It could even be a job.

Some of us, for whatever reason (perhaps because of some un-health with some relationship in our family of origin) have triangled in our work as a way of dealing unhealthy emotional processes going on somewhere else in our lives.  We hope that our work will solve those problems.  In fact, it does not, and cannot.  Moreover, this has the effect of making our work “necessary” for our “salvation” on some level.  Going back to point #1, that will actually compound the problem, since the more “necessary” our work is (in other words, our performance at it is existentially crucial for us), the more emotionally rigid and less “playful” we will be at it, which will cause our performance to suffer, which will make us feel bad about ourselves, and so on and so on.

To put it one way: We’re having affairs with our work and it needs to stop.

That leads me to the last reflection…

3) This is why we need to have a robust interior life with God.  By “interior” I’m not simply advocating “personal piety” as the solution to all of our problems.  I am advocating a way of life in which we are in constant and lively dialogue with the God who is perpetually trying to lead us out of death and into life, who is perpetually “setting us right” with Him, within ourselves, with the community of faith, and with the world we find ourselves in.

We need to see the ways in which, for instance, our relationship with our work is inappropriate, and be led lovingly into wholeness and shalom.  We need to have our identity constantly affirmed to us (“you are already as loved and as safe as you can possibly be in Christ Jesus”).  We need to be challenged to straighten out relationships that have pushed us to unhealthy engagement with this or that issue or cause.

We need to be healed.  And the more we are healed, the more free we’ll be from performance… and the more free we are from performance, paradoxically, the better we’ll do at our work.

I tell some of the younger fellas at Bloom from time to time, before they get ready to preach or doing anything publicly, “Look, we don’t need you to be Captain Amazing.  And there is nothing for you to prove.  Just do the job with joy.  There is nothing riding on your ‘performance’…”

May we all believe that, and believe it deep in our bones.

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