The Playground and the Gameboard

Though we all live on Earth, we live with different world-views.

One of the more notable biological characteristics of humans is neoteny, the retention of juvenile traits. (By juvenile we don’t mean tasteless immaturity, but rather ‘still developing’.) To developmental biologists and other apes, we look kind of like babies. Along with hairlessness and facial proportions are features more intriguing, like deeper parental investment and prolonged neurological development. It’s no wonder we forget that there is nec pater, nec mater when we live in another’s care for 18+ years. (Unless, of course, we don’t; unreliable parents oft produce a sense of heroic responsibility.)

Within Homo sapiens, some individuals retain psychological neoteny longer than others. Scientist Jaak Panksepp was foundational in the field of affective neuroscience, the study of how emotions arise from neurology. He describes a model of seven basic mammalian affects; seven emotions that are shared by all mammals, and which can be evoked with direct brain stimulation (TED talk). Only the affect of ‘play’ is primarily expressed by youth. Panksepp describes play (a technical term in the field) thus; “the overall impression given by practically all mammals is a flurry of dynamic, carefree rambunctiousness.”

Humans, as mammals, display all of these affects. They display them not only physically, but conceptually. Just as anger causes people to attack ideas and loss causes nihilist philosophies, so too is play expressed conceptually in humans. Concepts lead to worldviews, and for some, a worldview of play affect extends neoteny beyond its natural horizons.

In the beginning, there is a child. This child has an imaginary friend who is a lion. Every day they go to the park together to have lunch. The child trudges over to a tree, and the lion pounces behind them, chasing the flies. They eat the sandwich their parents have packed for them, and they save the cheese for last because it is the most delicious. The lion rolls in the grass and climbs up the tree. The child watches the clouds and with them builds cities. When their meal is done, the child trudges back and the lion trots behind, his tail wagging and his mane covered in leaves. The child decides that when they build cities, they will build them so that lion can climb anything he wants.

One day their parents take them to some place special. The child doesn’t understand where, but lion wants to go for a car ride, so they agree to follow. The car pulls up to a building as tall as it is wide. Each sheet of glass is a different color. The child decides that their cities will have such windows. The child doesn’t know what a toy store is, but when they pass through the colored windows, they knows what the things inside are meant for. From wall to wall there is nothing but piles of blocks, beams, magnets, sheets, tracks and wheels. The child can’t feel their feet anymore and never thought that clouds might be so close, but lion has already knocked over the nearest stack of blocks and so the child runs after, forgetting that they had decided to cry in a flurry of thoughts of what to build first.

The playground is also inhabited (for a time) by the characters Dagny Taggart and Francisco d’Anconia in Atlas Shrugged. We hear a purified version of Dagny’s experience after they learn how to share their bodies with each other;

… she thought that she would not sleep, because she did not want to rest and lose the most wonderful exhaustion she had ever known—her last thought was of the times when she had wanted to express, but found no way to do it, an instant’s knowledge of a feeling greater than happiness, the feeling of one’s blessing upon the whole of the earth, the feeling of being in love with the fact that one exists and in this kind of world; she thought that the act she had learned was the way one expressed it. If this was a thought of the gravest importance, she did not know it; nothing could be grave in a universe from which the concept of pain had been wiped out; she was not there to weigh her conclusion; she was asleep, a faint smile on her face, in a silent, luminous room filled with the light of morning.

In these worlds, the stars are a reflection of life’s endless potential and the only purpose of the horizon is for there to always be more to explore. There is no fear and the only reaction to conflict is the grin that looks forward to adventure.

But this is not the world where I live. In the world where I live there is danger. In the world where I live, those who wish to play might instead be hurt. Those that reach may fall, and those that fall cannot always get back up. There are those with hearts that radiate warmth, and in return the world hurts them, again and again. Not all and not always, but with indifference to justice.

There are those who never come to know this world. They live on with hearts as light as the fog over San Francisco, and the suffering that they see does not settle inside them. They do not take it in and it does not touch them there. They know not panic and they’ve no knowledge of desperation.

Until recently I was one of them. I was one who lived in the world where all was play. But I cannot dwell there anymore, because there is a danger in the world, and I cannot allow it. It must not come here and it must not touch these sacred things. I will not allow it.

So I will fight. I will fight the danger, and by learning to fight I will fight against my nature.

Dagny and Francisco deal with this tragedy throughout the book; it’s part of what defines them as characters.

She survived it. She was able to survive it, because she did not believe in suffering. She faced with astonished indignation the ugly fact of feeling pain, and refused to let it matter. Suffering was a senseless accident, it was not part of life as she saw it. She would not allow pain to become important. She had no name for the kind of resistance she offered, for the emotion from which the resistance came; but the words that stood as its equivalent in her mind were: It does not count—it is not to be taken seriously. She knew these were the words, even in the moments when there was nothing left within her but screaming and she wished she could lose the faculty of consciousness so that it would not tell her that what could not be true was true. Not to be taken seriously—an immovable certainty within her kept repeating—pain and ugliness are never to be taken seriously.

She fought it. She recovered. Years helped her to reach the day when she could face her memories indifferently, then the day when she felt no necessity to face them. It was finished and of no concern to her any longer.

There are so many people on this earth. I do not know whether they all should come to understand this place where we live. But I’m speaking now to those who have something to protect.

There is a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
There is a time to sew, and a time to rend; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.
There is a time to heal, and a time to kill; a time of peace, and a time of war.

And this time, this time without guardrails or padding, this is the time to look up, look out, and see what is in the world. It is time now to leave the playground and enter the gameboard. But this is not a game you play; this is a game you endure. This is a game you struggle to stay in at all.

Once you see that there is something other than the playground, you are already outside it. For to be on the playground is to be carefree, and to see something outside is to see that something is not right. You may see me from there, but it will always be through the looking glass.

I can’t write about the gameboard in the same way, because I’m new here. I’m still trying to absorb the loss of the playground; still looking back and dreaming on it; still using all my patterns of thought and action from a world where all is well. Maybe a year from now I will be able to give others a greeting to the gameboard; but for now, I’m still stumbling, still learning how to walk among all these lines, pieces and boundaries. I don’t know the rules, and I don’t know the players. I have no battle-tested strategies or methods of dealing with loss. What I do have are allies, and what I do know is the goal; to make all the world a playground, so that no one ever truly loses again.

The Human Condition

I wrote this speech for the 2014 Bay area secular solstice. It was given after many other songs and speeches, and the immediately preceding piece was an adaptation of this.

So what do we do when the darkness surrounds us? What do we do, when the warmth around us recedes, and no longer supports our well-being?

Part of the human condition is that we can imagine far beyond that which is, and beyond that which could be. We can imagine this hall, instead of warm, filled with snow. Or a world populated with giants, who stride over hills. Or sprawling cities under the ocean. These things are trivial for us. A child, when reading a fairy tale, may not even know what elements of the story can or cannot be; it is all there, in their mind. This is simply what it is like to be a human; to know things unreal.

With that vision comes the ability to suffer from what could have been, or from what can never be. Our counterfactual losses. The books we did not write. The relationships we never forged. The children we did not create.

And because we can see what could be great, we can choose to make it.

Imagine we are with our ancestors in a prehistoric age. In a dark forest, all alone with nothing in sight but the dirt at our feet, we can see more. The rocks strewn about, hard as they are, can break. We have seen it before, and we will see it again. And broken rocks have endless potential. We will turn them into knives, and axes, arrowheads and art. That which could be, from mere broken rocks, served us better than any claw. The animals we kill can be skinned for warmth and protection. The trees around us will fall, and bind together into a shelter.

This is the power of our ability to imagine.

And it is no different today. From our vantage point, we can see so much higher. Though it still gets dark, we use what our ancestors conceived, and we look ever further.

The universe, exactly because of its indifference, will not try to stop us. Though it is cold and amoral, it is not a monster, but a machine. And machines don’t mind when you try to improve them. Just as there is no god to enforce a limit on suffering, there is no one to limit the good. There is only us.

So what do we do, when the darkness settles in around us? When things change, and the world is no longer welcoming? We let there be light.

We turn toward reason, and the products of our mind. We turn toward the world, and open up our minds to its nature. We conceive, we experiment, we perceive, we iterate. We question and we answer. And there is light.

We who turn rock into river, who thrust ourselves into the sky for convenience, who have seen beyond light and stepped beyond terra firma; we who have turned the unthinkable into the mundane; when we decide to do something, it will only be a matter of time.