Karl Lindholm: An enterprise of the Spirit: Why play?

I am playful when I ski (and I rarely am in everyday life). I sing when I ski — the tune dictates my speed and rhythm.
I feel weightless in heavy boots and skis attached — and heavy winter clothing covering my whole body. I almost fly when I ski.
I love it when the incline of the trail is steep enough that the heels of my skis are right up against my butt and the tips of the skis are pointing straight down the face of the mountain.
I am not afraid of heights and speed.
These are not my words. I don’t ski, never have. I have four kids, all Vermonters born in Middlebury — none ski.
These are the sentiments of a Middlebury College friend, a classmate, who was on the ski team and has continued to ski pleasurably into her 70s.
I asked her, why? Why ski? Why still ski, taking into consideration practical concerns — expense, travel, time, aches & pains, risk of injury, mortality, and so on?
She gave me a perfectly good practical answer — a biography of her life on the slopes, friendship, trips with family, love of winter, travel.
That was not really what I was after. I was looking for something more essential. So I asked, “What does skiing do for your spirit?” and she offered the above reflections, among others.
She is part of a group of women, classmates from college (the “Women of ’67,” or Wof67, they call themselves), who get together once or twice a year, to deepen the ties bound from so long ago.
This winter, a contingent of a dozen or so shared a couple of days skiing at Sugarbush. She asked them the question about skiing and the spirit — and an absorbing discussion ensued that included these comments, conveying sensual pleasure, and joy:
Swooping down the hill gives me a great fuzzy feeling that lasts, exhilarating even a day later.
Skiing is being able to play outdoors in the winter; I like the smell of snow — today it was the smell of water.
I love the feeling of my body doing what I tell it to do.
One of the four categories of play that sociologist Roger Caillois identified in his 1958 book, “Man, Play, and Games” is Ilinx or Vertigo. These are games that are based upon the “pursuit of vertigo” and aim to “inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind.”
That’s what I’m talking about! A voluptuous panic.
Caillois was responding to Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga’s classic conception of play as “free activity, delimited within a ‘sacred’ area and thus separated from ordinary life.”
Sports! It’s possible for us, me anyway, to apply our conventional sporting activity to these definitions.
One of the many books I planned in life to write was a Studs Terkel-type compendium of first person accounts of “Why Play,” in which athletes of all types and all ages, from Little League to senior league, formal and informal, explain the extraordinary immanent and ineffable pull of sports in their lives:
Not talking here about the spectator appeal of sports from a barstool or couch — but out there in the muck and mire, risking injury, defying weather, inertia, illness, the rigors of age, and life’s myriad inhibitions to play sports.
It’s not work. We talk about athletes we admire because they work hard. We extol their “work ethic.” But make no mistake, at the core, play, or the preparation for play, is at its core exhilarating, joyful, even if we attach other meaning to it (wins and losses, for example). It is indeed a “voluptuous panic.”
Why get up at dawn to run, why join an after work hoops or soccer league, when you could be sleeping, reading, or socializing with friends. Why go hit balls on the practice range if not in anticipation of something rich and arresting, something to be earnestly sought and repeated.
What is more perfect than a drive straight down the middle, high and far? It produces a great feeling.
I wish I had never heard of endorphins, the biological explanation for the “high” we get when we engage in vigorous physical activity. For me, that seems to provide a too coolly scientific and antiseptic rationale for the joy and passion in our play, that voluptuous panic.
For me, a child of Scandinavian forebears and restrained Yankees — cautious people — I am by nature risk-averse and attracted to the safe path. Sports then were a blessed release from constraint, something to be done with abandon, and just about the only thing that allowed me to live so freely in the moment.
Unlike my friend, the skier, I am afraid of both heights and speed. The wages of time, the aging process, means I have less access now to the powerful appeal of play, though it is strong in my memory and I am prone indeed to vicarious thrills.
Sports at their core and at their best are an enterprise of the spirit.

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