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How To Play

( Originally Published 1906 )


I HAD a dog once which, like all young dogs, knew how to play. On sight of me at the farthest distance, he would come flashing out, quivering in every eager muscle, and alive in every burnished hair of his ruddy coat. He tumbled over and over in his extravagance of joy till it almost seemed that the puppy's frantic revolutions had turned him into a globe of frisky fur, belted by that very unsteady equator, his plumed and whirling tail. There was more whole-hearted merriment in a single lithe, barking prance of that young puppy than in many an evening party undertaken by fashionable undertakers ; more laughter and good cheer in his jolly bark than in all the jerky giggles ever squeezed out of tight boots or a tight bodice ; more of. genuine, renewing sport in his sparkling eyes than ever gleamed palely from above a simpering mustache or darted from under a coquette's pencilled brows.

I used that ecstatic puppy as a sort of character guage. When, at his jovial advances,—a ball of furry sunshine, a barking challenge to the blues to put on gloves with him if they dared,—when, at my young dog's absolutely sincere and delightful approach, skirts were drawn up primly, or broadcloth manifested an uneasy dread of mud, when brows contracted, and lips looked sour, and eyes grew hard and cold,-well, my puppy had found a very unfortunate man, a very pitiable woman. But when, at sight of the onrushing cataract of puppyish jollity, faces were wreathed in cordial smiles, hands came eagerly out of restraining kids, eyes lighted up in roguish sympathy with this bit of God's sunshiny nature, and the whole heart was evidently longing to break through the bondage of broadcloth or silk, of years, or people's opinion, and, as in the blessed childhood, to abandon itself to the puppy's carousal of glee,—then, why then, my young dog had found for me, in nine cases out of ten, a strong, sweet-spirited, tender-hearted, courageous, and blessed man or woman.

I no longer have the use of that animated character gauge, for my gay dog is dead. But as Carlo became an old dog, as the charms of puppyhood fell from his curly back, as the years brought the sedateness they bring to dogs and men alike, to the dog they brought no souring of the spirit, no grim, prim stiffness of demeanor. His advance was still a tumbling cataract of jollity, tamed but slightly by the rheumatism. Tin cans, small boys, kicking cows could make no havoc of his irrepressible good humor. When disease had plainly settled upon him, he preached me many a sermon by his bounding geniality, so painful to his body that it often ended in a distressful whine and a puzzled look in the brown eyes, as if they really could not understand why muscles should grow old while the spirit is young, and legs be stiffened beneath a dancing heart. And as the old dog came to die, he used his last remaining strength in trying to wag his tail.

I am going to take that puppy, the merry life he lived and. the merry death he died, as the text of this book. Solomon sent the world to an invertebrate, to learn how to work by considering the ant. For a model of the more difficult art, the art of right playing, I have had to take, you see, a higher animal, a vertebrate.

Should men become puppies, you ask, and live like creatures of the day, careless of their immortal souls ? No, by no means ; let us have no more puppies in human form than we have now. But I have never yet discovered why it is necessary to be unhappy and disagreeable because one has a soul. I have never yet found out why it is necessary, in order to learn how to work, to forget how to play. No minister of the good tidings has ever yet undertaken to prove to me the necessity, in order to become like those little children the Master gives us for models, that we should omit from our character the gay light-heartedness which is one of their pre-eminent charms. I never yet could see why, in order to substantiate humanity's claim to be better than the brutes, we need in any particular be worse than they. It is a blessed thing to grow old with a bounding gayety of heart, though not of body, such as my old dog had.

Have you read that sketch by Robert J. Burdette, wherein he describes his feelings as be watched a gay band of young revellers, their hands grasping a string and eagerly sliding to and fro upon it, while an earnest young man in the centre tried to locate the fugitive key ? As Burdette noted the intent faces, the bubbling merriment, the happy eyes of that group, jolly representative though he is of the gospel of good cheer, uppermost in his mind was the thought, " What idiocy ! Watch those silly hands, sliding inanely back and forth over that simple string ! " Then came an alarming discovery : " Bob Burdette, you are growing old. Your heart has lost its youthful simplicity, for such things pleased you, too, once, and now they only disgust." Then came a resolution, which this mirthful philosopher urges upon all that have reached the turning of the tide,—a resolution to share no more in youthful glee to be a dampener of young people's sport. Well, well ! I always fancied that it must be a rather serious thing to furnish fun for a continent, but I never thought that the humorist's sad career could so tame a genial heart.

Who has not seen bearded men and matronly women, yes, and spectacled grandsires, and grandmas with snowy hair beneath their caps, —clamored for by children more than the gayest youthful leader of their games ? Men and women that grow old in the right way are al-ways the very life and soul of all meetings of young people. They. have been playing so much longer than the youngsters, you see, that they know just how to do it. They have re-sources in this delightful art of which those young apprentices, apt scholars though they may be, know nothing. God pity the house-hold that has no young-old person in it to teach the boys and girls how to play. The world, bitter and harsh oftentimes, will not fail in precepts of industry ; but in default of frolicsome father or mother, or game-loving grandfather or maiden aunt, what a doleful household there will be !

You have watched them grow up, have you not, these poor little boys and girls that never learned how to play ? One would not mind the stiffening of their muscles, though muscles are not made to grow stiff; but how sad to see the stiffening of their manners ! One would not mind the wrinkles on the fore-head and about the corners of the mouth, though these are not necessary nor handsome ; but we sorrow to see the temper become flabby. The slow, tedious gait and constrained movements would vex us little, though men and women have no right thus to disgrace the wonderful mechanism of the body ; but we mourn the loss of mental agility and spiritual alacrity.

Have you ever thought what an artist would do to transform a picture of the average infant into a picture of the average person of middle age ? He would make the face longer, the nose sharper, the lips thinner, the cheek-bones more prominent, the eyes colder, the skin yellow, the muscles shrunken, the lines angular. To be sure, he would widen the forehead, but might he not widen the forehead without making these other, these lamentable, changes ? Must experience bring with it sourness? Need age be less lovely and jubilant than babyhood because it is more learned ? Must we sell our hearts to buy our brains, and in our spiritual market reports quote success in terms of happiness ? That we may grow old more wisely than the dog, must we grow old more sadly ?

The only true Christian is the. light-hearted Christian. Sir John Lubbock has two companion essays. One he styles " The Happiness of Duty," the other, " The Duty of Happiness." Joyousness is possible for every Christian, therefore joyousness is obligatory upon every Christian. So rare is really sane sport, that of Sir John's two essays the latter may actually be more important than the former, and it is becoming the duty of one who cares for the welfare of his brothers to place emphasis upon the duty of Christian play, as upon the duty of Christian work.

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