Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Myth of Sisyphus and Child Play


Happy toddler boy dropping cars in his dumptruck


My toddler son has two main obsessions: his dump and garbage truck and more recently, the game “Angry Birds.” What both of them might have in common is the element and cycle of destruction and construction. My son would load his garbage trucks piece by piece with carefully selected rocks, marbles or toy cars, and moments later dump them all out in order to start all over again with the whole process.

In the second instance, he would “recreate” conditions and situations of the game “Angry Birds” by putting pieces of lego and duplo together, by building a house in which he would house the green piggies only to have it destroyed minutes later by a swarming attack of those wingless avian creatures.

Apart from a vivid imagination, there is another philosophical point at play here. It reminds one of poor Sisyphus. In this myth, good old Sisyphus was condemned to roll a heavy rock up a steep hill only to have it roll down again. Camus used this legend to highlight the absurdity of human existence. We must engage in trivial and senseless acts day in day out for no particular reason or without any visible or tangible outcome or result in view.

Life then is a mixture of ordeal and suffering that eventually only leads to death, the extinction of the self, a deep engulfing black of nothingness. Yet with a simple twist of attitude or point of view what may seem pointless and meaningless suddenly becomes engaging and fun.

My son would, in fact, re-enact the deed of Sisyphus out of sheer joy and pleasure. Imagine Sisyphus joyfully greasing or rather dusting up his hands, giving out a loud yip and pushing up that piece of rock with pizzazz and pitch-perfect enthusiasm. Then at the top, he would see it roll down again, clapping his greasy or dusty hands and be all ready for the challenge to push it up once again ad infinitum.

That it is senseless and absurd does not even cross his mind. It might be deemed as “senseless” as listening to music or lying on the beach on a sunny day. What is the point of taking off your clothes before a shower if you are going to put them on again after you are done? The question of reason, purpose, or utility can become absurd in itself.

For my son it is the act itself that is of value. It follows the simple everyday philosophy of what goes up must come down, what is built or dumped out must be destroyed or loaded up again. Try to tell him that he is “wasting his time,” that he could engage in behaviors that are more constructive, and you have completely missed the point.

Children use play in ways that we may regard dreams. For them it is a sort of meditation, and it is perhaps the moment when life makes most sense, a state that we often have lost touch and contact with as adults. Nothing, in fact, can be more important than play. Trying to replace or substitute play with work will make you a dull adult indeed.

In fact, many activities can be considered a “waste” of time. We tend to judge the value of an activity in proportion to its supposed benefits whether in terms of money (time = money) or self-improvement (so you can be better at making even more money). It is the material gains we are after and why we have such high disregard for computer games, for example. They wear out our eyes; they are not educational in the least; they are highly sedentary, and even addictive; they, in fact, foster violence in most cases.

Then we have others who come to its support: Video games enhance hand-eye coordination and reflexes, problem-solving skills, and the desire to compete with oneself or others. Yet it still ends up being the cost / benefits analysis that takes the positive variables “fun” and “pleasure” out of the equation.

Personally, I do not enjoy neither computer games nor would I myself engage in the activities of my son. Yet more often than not, I do join him. Partly because of a feeling of obligation, partly because I miss my own childhood games, partly because it makes him so happy, but for the most part because I feel that I am spending quality time with him. And nothing, no compensation, monetary or otherwise, can beat that. 
 

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