Not long ago, my new little girl kitty was absorbed in the pure delight of play for play’s sake. Watching her I thought, “Maybe this is the ultimate aim of life. Maybe all the struggle and passion and toil is about recreating this state of pure play over and over again, since it can’t last.” Like tossing a ball up into the air again and again just for that moment when the sun gilds the ball at its apogee, its moment of freedom from gravity.
And then it falls, its momentum harvested for the next toss.
Kitty, barely legal at 9 or 10 months, is in the agonies of heat for the second time in three weeks. As young men are drafted into the army before they’re even mature, young females are drafted into the army of reproduction before they’ve had more than an eyeblink to enjoy life and discover their powers. Said powers, barely suspected, will be bent to the service of feeding the next generation as it enjoys its brief moment of consummate freedom to play. This is as true of traditional human societies as it is in nature.
It’s easy to understand why this has been necessary. Life is in a race against death and this was the only way not to lose. The second law of thermodynamics is on the side of death; life is an energetic defiance with a high cost. It can afford only the briefest of escapes from the drag of thermodynamic necessity.
This disproportion between the time spent keeping life going and the time spent enjoying it may be natural, but let’s not pretend it’s noble. It’s brutal. Rilke wrote about life’s mystery that too many of us “pass it on like a sealed letter.” Or, at best, we steam it open and steal a glimpse before guiltily gluing it shut again to get it back in the mail to the ever-receding future.
I propose that traditional societies are misguided in glorifying submission to necessity and trying to keep life confined within its strict forms. I propose that the greatest achievement of human beings (which indeed has come at a high cost of extraction of energy from the rest of the living planet) has been to push back death far enough to prolong that time of pure play. Curiosity, creativity, wonder, pleasure, delight—there can’t be too much time for that. There still isn’t enough. Growing up late, having fewer children later and handing them an opened letter, playing one way or another all our lives—call it narcissistic self-indulgence, call it “failure to launch” or “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” call it art, call it witness, call it high praise.