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Why Fun Is a Serious Issue

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I was watching an excellent documentary on the sorry state of the physician's life in these days of insuranceocracy -- government by and for the insurance companies -- when a woman said, "Doctors are quitting because medicine just isn't fun any more."

The word "fun" struck me. An entire film about the life, death and suffering of patients; about doctors working too hard for little profit, emotional or financial; and a healthcare system that people have given up on. And the final word is that it isn't any fun.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not criticizing the word at all. I'm thinking about it. Years ago I read Johan Huizinga's book on culture as play, Homo Ludens, and was deeply impressed. Yes, our serious politics, police work and medicine are often highly dramatic, like theater, like play.

My 18-year-old daughter occasionally entices me to watch Grey's Anatomy with her, and we get absorbed in the dramatic love lives and sex play of doctors and nurses. In fact, I wonder if the tendency of children to "play doctor" suggests that being a doctor is a kind of play, a game even. After all, the ancient Greeks honored a god of life and death, Dionysos, as the divine patron of the theater. Our lives are dramatic: often tragic, but just as frequently comic.

The word "fun" has its origin in the word "fool." Erasmus, that witty, theology-inclined philosopher of Renaissance Europe, claimed that life is worth living because of its foolishness. We are worth knowing and loving only because we are so often fools, intentionally or unintentionally.

I think it's legitimate to translate the title of Erasmus's most famous book, written incidentally at Thomas More's house in London, as In Praise of Fun. Here's what he says about marriage: "How many more divorces would there be if married couples didn't flatter each other, laugh things off, relax, be deceived and pretend that things are not the way they are. This is all fun!"

Modern life -- and I mean the modernist myth that shapes us -- is, in contrast, deadly serious. The fun has gone out of work, and if the fun is gone, what is left? What is left is a soulless culture, because in some mysterious way a soulful life and fun go together. When I would tell my father of my heavy schedule and impossible workload, he would always say, "As long as you're having fun."

Seriousness without fun is the sign of an exaggerated ego. There's no room there for a soul. No capacity to see the underlying dramas and theater that make life worth living. No insight into the games we play as we go about our politics and manufacturing and finance. At least grant me that warfare is like a game of chess.

So what should we do? Should we fritter away life like a mere game? Should we play at being adults? Should we act the fool and indulge in our stupidity? No, of course not. Paradoxically, these things happen when you lose sight of the game and forget the value of your foolishness. We need to transform serious life into theater -- dress up, use good language, be real characters. We might see the myth in our personal history, the drama in our personal crises, and the folly in our relationships.

We have much to learn from good comedians, who point out the fool in our serious business. Why do you think they pick on presidents and other serious leaders so often? We need good theater to learn how to see everything as drama, games of football and golf and tennis to be reminded of the goals and hazards and fouls in life. We need to tell jokes and play tricks, just to keep the fool, the source of fun -- that is, the human soul -- in play.

What's my game? I've been a psychotherapist for 35 years. I know when a client is getting somewhere when she starts laughing at her miserable failures and impossible dilemmas. In my work I use dreams as a fun element, a way to see through the dense literalism and dour seriousness of our neurotic points of view. When my patient can't laugh, I do. If I don't have fun doing what I do, I should be sitting in the other chair.

Maybe I'm not taking this idea far enough. Maybe the more important our business is, the more fun it should be. Like medicine and politics. I think that woman in the film was right. Physicians are leaving medicine because the fun has gone out of it. That's the last straw. They could go on if the job were just getting difficult, if people didn't like them, and if the pay got worse. But if the fun goes away ... ?

I hope you've had fun reading this. I had fun writing it. I bet you can tell. If I didn't have fun, I'd have to press the delete button and start over. That's the lesson from Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More, whose last name in Greek, Erasmus reminds us, like that of others who have variations of the name, means "fun."

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