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The Purpose of Purposelessness (Part 2 of 4)

What's so "practical" about being childlike?

Bubble Gum/Wikipedia Commons
Source: Bubble Gum/Wikipedia Commons

As I emphasized in Part 1, you don't engage in purposeless behavior to achieve anything. You enter into it simply for the pleasure it brings. And such behavior isn't impulsive either. It may be spontaneous, but it's hardly unwitting or reckless. For it's only when you've intuited the behavior to be reasonably safe that you allow yourself the liberty to become engrossed in it.

At times the behavior may be so unconventional, so daring, as to raise others' eyebrows. But that's hardly a problem because when you behave purposelessly you're really not concerned with others' validating you. You know well enough what you're doing. You just don't feel any need to inhibit or censor it. And--in sharp contrast to the addict--you embark on the activity not because you have to, or are compelled to, but simply because you want to.

The Childlike "Play" of Purposelessness

As a child, purposeless activity comes naturally. You play solely for the sake of play. But as an adult you frequently need to cultivate this "liberated" attitude--a state of mind and feeling that enables you regularly to let your hair down and recapture this refreshingly innocent state of being, a state of doing something for the sheer (though transient) joy of it. There's a certain purity in all this, since you're not trying to take advantage of a situation or triumph over another. You're merely giving yourself license to express, extemporaneously, something spirited and vibrant inside you.

Additionally, as I've already suggested, purposeless activity--as the "child's play" it is--isn't embarked upon to elicit positive recognition from those around you. And typically it doesn't. Unless you've created a spectacularly original outfit as part of your "get-up" for some costume party, very few undertakings devoid of pragmatic value garner accolades from others. But that's fine, for the unpremeditated motive of such behavior has far more to do with self-expression than with influencing others to see you more favorably.

playing w/puppyA key distinction between adults and children is self-control [note my earlier two-part post on this subject]. So permitting your "inner kid" self to periodically show its face and take non-judgmental charge of your behavior can offer a rejuvenating respite from the everyday obligations and responsibilities of your more dutiful adult self--a self where virtually everything taken on has to mean something, accomplish something. Moreover, behaviors that lack particular utility are much more likely to be creative, to exercise that imaginative part of your brain that may be atrophying from insufficient use. (In fact, I can't help wondering how many inventions emerged fortuitously in the very act of a person's behaving purposelessly!)

Needless to say, we all need to exercise self-control to develop adult competency. Yet it may be every bit as important, intermittently, to abandon this control if we're to be adequately self-nurturing . . . and happy. However essential it may be to internally constrict our behavior, frankly it's not that pleasurable either. And when such self-constraint gets "locked in," our emotions--even though they represent what's most vital in us--inevitably become muted.

This is why most of us are drawn to all kinds of music, or movies, or whatever evokes that side of us that's too frequently suppressed. Scrupulously abiding by our consigned roles (whether they be employer or employee, husband or wife, teacher or student, etc.) prevents us from getting in touch with our child self--and the spontaneous, un-moderated emotions of excitement and joy that renew and reinvigorate us.

The almost universal allure of drama (or "plays") suggests how cathartic it is to see others act out powerful emotions, the uninhibited expression of which we typically deny ourselves. Whether these emotions are anger or ecstasy, despair or delight, witnessing them "in action" enables us to expand ourselves. And when we emotionally identify with the "players"--when we vicariously partake of their behaviors without having to regulate our mind or emotions--we get to "play" ourselves, and safely actuate an emotional discharge. We may be viewing something heavy, but we'll leave the theater all the lighter for it, a load almost magically lifted off our shoulders.

Lenore Terr, in her Beyond Love and Work: Why Adults Need to Play, observes that dictionaries tend to define play in a way that devalues it--implying that it's "frivolous" and "unnecessary"--belonging solely to the domain of children. In the eyes of many, the very act of play is almost synonymous with idleness (which, of course, wars against the work ethic our society holds in such high regard). The implied message here is that while it's okay to (idly) play as a child, as adults we must compete.

men at playBut Terr, arguing for the seminal importance of play in our lives, postulates that play not only affords us pleasure, but also gives us a sense of belonging and provides an opportunity for us to be more flexible, to learn new things. Moreover, it reduces stress and functions to boost relationships. It's a mini-vacation from our characteristically purposeful lives that provides us with the occasion to "pause"--thereby enabling us to re-examine our lives from a fresh perspective.

Referring to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose work on well-being and "flow" I've already discussed in a post sub-titled "Spontaneity and Happiness," Terr writes of this author's defining play, creatively, as "grounded in the concept of possibility." While at play, our sense of limitation typically disappears, as does our self-consciousness and self-awareness. Immersed in such a world, we experience our essential freedom. And to Terr, in alleviating built-up tensions play also permits us to leave behind our sadness, our cares and worries. In her words: "Laughing, hitting a ball . . . moving our bodies around, moving our ideas around, gently teasing, playing a role--these diversions create a series of shallow, slow releases that relax us and leave us satisfied, set for another day."

To sum up, although it may be prudent to develop a kind of existential map for yourself, to lay out in detail what you want to achieve in life, it's every bit as crucial to go "off map" at times to explore personally uncharted territory. And to do so for no other reason than that you've never undertaken such a journey before. Again, the goal isn't to accomplish anything--it's simply to feel more alive. It's precisely in your purposeless, non-goal-directed activity that you can discover a re-energizing, re-vivifying liberty you may have forgotten was always there--vibrating deep inside you. And, in these precious moments, you can recapture that wondrous, virginal sense of newness you so readily experienced as a child.

Note: Whereas Part 1 of this post focused on defining and illustrating purposeless behavior, as well as contrasting it with its addictive counterpart, the present post has argued for the lifelong value of "purposeless play." The remainder of this post--Parts 3 and 4--will take us full circle by examining the metaphysical and spiritual aspects of this intriguing subject.

Centering mostly on the provocative reflections of well-known Indian guru, Osho, it will examine the possibility of a purposeless universe and how individual purposelessness might fit into such a context. As Osho, challenging our conventional thinking, puts it: "Life is purposeless. And it is beautiful that it is purposeless. . . . If it is purposeful then [everything] becomes absurd . . . no freedom is possible [and so] life becomes businesslike. It cannot be ecstatic."

© 2010 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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