The Usefulness of Play

In 2006 I went to a book reading and slide show by legendary alpine climber Ed Viesturs. He’d just published his book about summiting the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 meters (26,264 feet) without supplemental oxygen, No Shortcuts to the Top and my friends and I had a front row seat for his show.

We were there early watching as he got his slide show ready. Ed came off the stage that was about 2 ½ feet above the level of the auditorium floor to fix the angle of the projector and then walked around to climb the stairs back onto the stage. As he did this when it would have been so easy for him to jump up, I joked, “No shortcuts to the top” and we howled in laughter.

There’s a famous story about Ed getting to the central summit (8,008m or 26,273 feet) of Shishapangma in Tibet and looking across the 100 meters of knife-edge climbing to get to the true summit that was a few meters higher in elevation (8,027m or 26,335 feet). He was by himself and decided it was too dangerous so he went home without summitting. Then he returned 8 years later to do it all again, this time shimmying across the knife ridge to get there.

So Ed has earned the reputation of being the boy scout of the climbing world and perhaps it’s no surprise he’d live out the motto of no shortcuts to the top. But I’ve revisited that scene in my head again and again when pondering the consistency of life on and off the mountain or more generally speaking, consistency between who we are at play versus “real” life.

I was recently moved to think differently about play by an interview I heard with Nikki Giovanni, the poet laureate of Virginia Tech University. She said that her “grandmother didn’t waste anything. There was nothing that came into her kitchen that she didn’t find a use for.” Then she continued, “I feel the same way about experiences and words. Nothing is wasted.”

Looking back on the things that I’ve chosen as my hobbies, I see that they have not just been pastimes but instead the proving grounds to work through ideas and attributes that I would come to and continue to need. Nothing has been wasted.

When I took up amateur mountain climbing in my late 20’s, I thought it was a way to see the world from a different viewpoint. Now I see it was a way to build my endurance to push through in those moments when I’m physically exhausted, something I’ve needed a lot in these early years of parenting.

Rock climbing at the indoor climbing gym was a way to get a workout and build upper body strength. There is almost always a move, the crux move, on a route that requires flexibility and faith to push through, bending your body in a way that allows you to reach past the obstacle or overhang without seeing the next hold. Now I see it as a physical way to practice the ability to move through the many challenging changes and tough transitions in life.

Recently I got a mosaic art kit for my daughter so that she could create designs by gluing small pieces of colored glass near each other. It was so fun that I’ve started doing it myself. It has very little to do with what I create and a great deal to do with seeing how all the small things in life come together to create the beautiful big picture of life.  

Here’s what I’ve come to believe: that play helps simulate the tough moments of life when you have to make decisions, have faith and maybe even carry on in conditions when you are tired, hungry and feeling defeated. The choices we make in those situations carry through to the paths we follow in life. We build confidence and get to know ourselves one step at a time on the proving ground and then know how to live.

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” We are what we practice, in play and in real life.

Perhaps that’s how Ed Viesturs managed the fourteen 8,000 meter peaks without supplemental oxygen. By practicing who he was, on and off the stage.

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13 thoughts on “The Usefulness of Play

  1. I comment with a quote from Nietzsche – In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play – I know Nietzsche is a controversial philosopher but some works are interesting and this quote goes very well with you post!

  2. Such a brilliant post Wynne! We’re not what we say we are, we’re what we embody – our daily habits define our values. Keep up the great work Wynne – have a wonderful week!

  3. “Nothing is wasted” . . . my life testifies to that. Readily perceived in Good experiences, God’s omnipotence to bring “… beauty for ashes…” retrospectively is now evident in those Bad and downright Ugly experiences.

    1. Yes, Fred! Beautifully said and the same thing has happened to me. Looking back, I can see how nothing is wasted and God’s hand to turn things that were really rough into beautiful opportunities to open. Thank you for sharing your experience and comment!

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