After more than a decade in one place, I’ve recently moved to a new neighbourhood — which means new eyes for what’s around me. And because it’s summer and near beaches, I’m seeing a lot of families with children, noticing, as I do every so often, how children move, how they get from point A to point B, eventually.
If there’s a low wall they walk on top of it. If the surface is relatively level, they skip. If it’s rainy, they wade straight through the middle of puddles. If there’s interesting stuff around them — and when is there not? — they embody the famous “random walk” of mathematics. In short, they take the long way round. They dart, jump, shuffle, hop, pirouette, and go backwards. They are inefficiency incarnate and a joy to watch.
All of which got me musing about when it is that we learn not to skip through life. Sure, the scientists will tell us that built in to the machine is a propensity to conserve energy, which, when it comes to locomotion, means using the two basic human gaits, walking and running, switching from one to the other when we’re going about 2.3 meters per second. And I’m sure that for trekking across the savannah these gaits are de rigueur. But most of us here now have the option of inefficiency — indeed, we go to great lengths and great expense to create situations where we practice calorie-burning inefficiency. So that sort of rationality doesn’t explain as much as we might think, once you take culture into account — as one always must.
No, it’s learned behaviour, surely. We teach our children to stop fidgeting, twirling, jumping, sliding, dancing and so forth. And they emulate our horror of puddles, our disinclination to balance along the tops of walls, even very low ones, and our refusal to plié in public. In effect, our repressive mirror version of the Ministry of Silly Walks promul-gaits and we comply.
Can you imagine hopping into court? negotiating the topmost edge of the seating banks like some Wallenda, and dismounting with evident pride, ready to begin the argument? skipping from an adjournment into the freed up time?
And yet what pleasure, what joy, we forgo when we stiffen our spines and square our shoulders like warriors about to meet a sticky end, instead of releasing our energy like dancers doing improv — like children at play.
Play is part of the “problem.” It is the paradigmatic example of human activity that has no ulterior purpose (rather like life itself, one might suggest). Yet Plato said it was for children, and made it instrumental, wedding it to the purpose of learning — as the root word in Greek forms “play,” “education,” and “children.” And when we do play, it’s likely we’ll feel the need to justify it as being good for us in one way or another — letting off tension, shedding weight, sparking creativity, and so forth — all of which may be true but misses the point, which is pointlessness. There’s even a National Institute for Play. Few things are more serious than national institutes.
What is to be done, as someone once asked (someone who never took a hop, skip, or a jump in his life, I believe)? I’d start at the corporate level and recommend that each company have a Corp Jester whose job it would be at a minimum, to skip down the halls, to walk backwards bouncing off the walls, to try to run on the edges of baseboards, and to slide down bannisters. (If the distances are great, then the CJ must use this inefficient mode of locomotion.) Oh, and the Corp Jester should be paid the second biggest salary in the outfit. Or — if that should prove impractical — I’d suggest that you (yes, you) take a tiny hiccup step every so often, something that might be considered a skip only by a very judgmental onlooker. Think of the thrill of anticipating that unnecessary and inefficient battement fou, think of the pleasure to be had from refusing just a little to walk the walk. Think of being a child again.