Playing life to learn

Class had been painful. The part of me that remembered I was planting seeds argued with another part that wished next year, on my birthday, there would be an easy assignment. Two students had flatly declined to try the work. Phillip put his head down and started a paper airplane. I gently took his airplane “to hold.” Phillip smiled as we discussed the assignment. He gave it another try. Carlos was another story. Seeking to get dismissed from class, Carlos declared that he hated me. I calmly replied I hoped he had a nice long hate — maybe a 150 years or so to hate me. Carlos was stunned speechless. I then said that since that was settled it was time to get back to work. 

The administrative assistant delivered a beautiful display of flowers my brothers had sent me. As I moved the flowers to my front table, I spilled a little of the water. Carlos and Phillip jumped up to take care of things. As I watched them, I realized the love and respect they had for me. Then of course they threw the wet paper towels at one another. That is life in a seventh-grade classroom. 

Standing there, at the end of class, watching those boys leave I wondered about the seeds planted that day. Jesus tells the Apostles, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Lk 17: 5-10). This seems a call to imagine then carry out a huge project where God will provide success beyond one’s wildest dreams. It is easy to place the growth of Phillip and Carlos to responsible young men as one such project. In the education and/or rearing of young children, it is also easy to understand the importance of playing to learn. 

James Carse in his book, “Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility,” describes two ways of being in this world. One is playing a finite game to win. The other is continuing an infinite game — playing to learn. Viewing my classroom example as a finite game, the game ended with the end of class. That day, the teacher lost as neither boy fully completed the work. Living the classroom example as an infinite game provides the students and the teacher, on subsequent days, the opportunity to be transformed by surprise. Each can take past misadventures as opportunities for continued learning and growth. Carse says, “Since infinite players do not regard the past as having an outcome, they have no way of knowing what has begun there. With each surprise, the past reveals a new beginning in itself.”

God’s Creation, time scale and world view are infinite. God’s invitation to us is to join Him in this. Yet, we live in a culture that views games as finite and values playing to win to the point of equating losing with failure. Society’s underlying message is that learning is for children. Instead of hindering us, that can be our starting point. We adults know that no matter what we do or accomplish, we are God’s children. Thus, there is always more for each of us to learn and do.

Do you remember the parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30)? This is the parable where the one who receives five coins makes five more and the one who hides the one talent gets the lesson about actions having consequences. Today the important aspect of the parable is the one who receives two coins. This is each of us. We have recognized and shared some of the gifts God has given us. However, wherever we are in life, God has imbued us with many more talents than we have developed. We may have closed the door on something because of some negative feedback, or perhaps never even realized those gifts were there. In the parable, the master’s words to that servant were: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come share your master’s joy” (Mt 25: 23).

God’s call to those new responsibilities comes with the heart’s recognition of a dream or vision. Sarah Ban Breathnach sums this up when she says, “The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers, but most of all the world needs dreamers who do.” Mark Nepo attributes this human ability to feel something inside and then build it into the world as an inborn need to love and to create. 

As he left class, I offered Phillip his airplane. He gave it to me for my birthday. His airplane gently rested on top of his partially-completed assignment. Both would be there for tomorrow. His smiling face was radiant. Phillip reminded me of the joy that accompanies playing to learn. 

Anchor columnist Helen Flavin is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer and a member of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River.

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