Sherry Antonetti is a freelance writer, blogger and published author of The Book of Helen. She lives just outside of Washington, DC with her husband and their ten children.
The internet and the phone, the computer and the camera, make us unable to forget ourselves. We’re all trying to show we’ve lost ourselves in a wonderful moment, except we can’t capture the moment if we’ve forgotten everything but the moment.
It isn’t just in leisure — it’s also true in all the rest of our lives. We’re constantly worrying that we aren’t dialed in or as informed as we should be, that we’re missing something if we’re not checking our emails or newsfeed or updating our status with a tweet or uploading proof that we’re doing something worth remembering on Instagram. We are missing something. We’re missing the point of being if we’re worried about being seen as being something. We are anxious about many things.
As a recovering news junkie, I know how the desire to be on top of things can become a form of gluttony, robbing the present and holding hostage, all of ordinary time to being in the know at the time something becomes known. A friend who helped steer me away from my consumption of information wisely said, “The news will still be there.” And it will exist whether I’m first in the know or not. That wisdom echoes my mother’s story of being counseled by a good friend: “Just because the phone rings, doesn’t mean you have to answer it.” The internet creates in us a need for constant awareness. It encourages vigilant sloth. While it may amuse, inform and inspire, entertain and educate, what our phones and computers and all the electronic devices we use cannot do is create the spontaneous fun of playing with others.
We live in an age of stimulation, when people long for some sort of authentic experience of something. They want the belonging, the comfort, the joy of play — but they lack the community and security and freedom to engage in the necessary work of deliberate leisure. It’s Friday night and five of my children have formed a karaoke band with tambourines, bells, drums and keyboards, but nothing can drown out the vocals. The older ones picked the most melodramatic songs from the eighties and have screamed themselves hoarse with Abba, Queen and Journey. The joy cascading down the stairs from the noise feels like the tickle of a winter wind promising snow, or Christmas lights, because it reveals a forgetting of the self in their play.
It’s why play remains a necessary part of life, a part we forget when we substitute entertainment for leisure. In play, the barriers of education and of age fell away with each song. The 14-year-old brother brought up ice water in mugs for all of them as they sifted through the music list for the next selection. The 10-year-old found flashlights for dramatic effect. Part of play is the additions, the amplifications, the more that comes from trying to continue the game. The songs get sillier, instruments get added, voices get louder, and people forget themselves more in the fun. Leisure reveals our capacity to define ourselves not solely by work, by duty, or by increments of time, money or accomplishments. Leisure requires we do something for its own sake, irrespective of talent, education or prospects for future improvement. We bake cookies to bake cookies, because baking cookies is fun, not because we will be lauded on Instagram for our baking skills. Play is all about the present moment and the present people. It’s intimate and shared and joyous and part of what keeps life from being sheer drudgery, even if bills and laundry and errands, sickness, repairs and homework remain.
If I’d stayed on my phone, I’d have missed this moment. If they’d stayed on their phones, this moment would not have happened.
My brain made the jump to an old children’s story and the lesson of the old skin horse in “The Velveteen Rabbit.” “Real isn't how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” We become more real ourselves when we really love, and when we play with each other for the sheer joy of each other’s company (like my kids fell into with the concert), we are in the process of being and becoming more real. Being present to each other is part of what we are called to do. If we cannot be present to each other, whom we can see, how can we be fully present to God whom we can experience but not see except veiled?