by Chris Horner

To become mature is to recover that sense of seriousness which one had as a child at play. —Nietzsche

Freud is supposed to have claimed that the two key things for happiness in life are work and love. If he did, he should have added a third: play. It’s this that Nietzsche is referring to in the quotation above. The aphorism states a paradox: we are told that to be ‘mature’ (whatever that is) we must return to playing like we did as a child. And what to make of that ‘sense of seriousness’ in a child’s play? Surely Nietzsche is thinking of the complete absorption and focus that a child is supremely capable of experiencing. If we are lucky we can recall times in our childhood when we were completely lost in the thing we were doing, seeing or hearing: serious play. As adults this can all too often elude us. It can seem a thing belonging to the lost time of childhood. But we should not give up the quest for it: it is a key to joy in life.

But let’s not idealise or sentimentalise the child. Children are in fact often intolerant of frustration, easily bored and keen to get shiny new stuff. And adults really can learn important habits of discipline and perseverance that children find so irksome. But they are also capable, to a degree that many adults find difficult, of the opposite of all that. A distinction needs to be made between childish and childlike. With the former we have all the characteristics associated with immaturity: a tendency to be easily distracted or bored, the urge for immediate gratification, demand for toys, and so on. All characteristics, incidentally, that our society tends to encourage in the adult. One of the key features of our time, surely, is divided attention, distraction and the promotion of multi-tasking. We even have an ‘attention economy’ in which corporations compete to distract us. And we know about the twitchy addiction to the smartphone and to social media. But all this hyperactivity, this constant busyness, can actually block us from attending to what is important. A drifting, distracted attention actually narrows our focus, because it thinks it knows what it wants, that it is looking for ‘something interesting’. It stays one step ahead of boredom – for a while.

To be childlike is quite different.

It is a quality of attention, a capacity for ‘oneness’ with what we are doing, a state of flow and loss of self-consciousness. Quite what we are doing in such states varies enormously. I have a vivid childhood memory of coming across a small stream, and carefully building a dam with twigs and mud. I have no idea how long I was doing it, and can only recall it as a time of utter happiness, of serious play. Many of us, if we are lucky, will have memories like this. It is surely part of the reason why people look back at childhood as a time in which they were truly happy. I would suggest that it is that buried sense of happy absorption that haunts our search for contentment in the present. But one doesn’t have to be a child to experience this. It is available to grown ups too. The paradox here is that when we lose ourselves in an activity that wholly engages us we have the sense of truly living, of actually being more present to ourselves. The difficulty is knowing how to get into that blissful state.

A likely model for Nietzsche was that of the artist: the maker. Anyone who has spent time in any kind of artistic production, however humble, will know that marvellous state in which you are utterly engaged in the act of creation and time seems to evaporate. Hours go by, and the cup of coffee made at the start of the day is found, untasted and stone cold, when night comes. It doesn’t always happen, of course, and art of any kind can be dogged by the kinds of difficulties that make the whole process slow and unrewarding. Keeping going under such circumstances is important and it’s here that discipline and perseverance counts. But when it does come, perhaps like a gift, it makes up for everything even if, in the end, the finished product isn’t all one hoped it might be.

Since we are concerned with a type of attention rather than a type of activity, such states aren’t just the gift of the artist. Anything can be the occasion for the state of playful attention: sport, of course, but also walking, exercise in the gym, cooking, writing, listening to music, reading and so on. It needn’t look like activity, and it needn’t produce anything, although it might. What matters is the quality of attention, not the thing one is attending to. Those lucky enough to find this quality of attentive focus in their paid employment will realise that it isn’t the opposite of ‘work’, although it may be the opposite of labour – of all that is dragged out of us painfully and tediously while we wait for the clock to get to 5.30 and try to direct our attention to the task before us.

To experience the ‘seriousness one had has a child at play’ we must give ourselves whole to what we are doing, hearing or seeing. What may be needed is a different kind of unmoored attention to the one the distracted person has. Can such a thing be willed? Maybe not. It would have be a kind of free attention open to the object before it that would be undistracted by drives and desires. This may be hard to realise, unless we remember the child at play that we once were. It may be possible to cultivate a habit of attention, of directing ourselves to what we are doing, to where we are. Unless we do, we are in danger of becoming the infantilised, irritable and distracted worker-commuter, consumed by busyness and by consumption itself. It is Nietzsche’s paradox: only by recovering this capacity of the child can the adult achieve present joy. Put that ability alongside, or rather within, love and work, and you really might have a key to what maturity really means.