Not the original, but a variation on a theme
Jogging past an assembly of children one morning I overheard a lesson being directed at them. An energetic, fatherly man was giving a taut lesson in basic soccer skills to a host of playful novices, and prefacing their exercises with a more fundamental, context-traversing appeal: if you have any questions—any at all—don’t be afraid to ask. There are no dumb questions. Everyone got that? He asked, sounding a bit more forceful than necessary given the point of his statement. With numb expressions, the kids gazed up at him, nodding compliantly, with their parents (a few were flanking the group) looking down with prompting influence. Did they get it? I wondered. Did any of them dare ask?
Such encouragements or exhortations tend to presume the following of both adults and children: not so much the possibility of incomprehension, as this coach was implying, but rather the constancy of attention. Everyone got that? He asked, with seeming reference to comprehension. This after implying, despite a contrary intention, that anyone who did not understand was “dumb”. A reaction formation, this would be called. But what of the inattentive? What of those children whose minds will have wandered, onto whatever is more pleasurable, or less onerous. Less onerous than soccer? I ask incredulously, because I’m a fan. The ego says to listen; to listen intently, without interruption, distraction. Comply, and to pay attention is even more important than to understand, so to not listen is to commit the greater sin, and to be consigned to shameful silence, at best hoping the information is repeated, granting a second chance to hear. The ego adds that when the authority figure asks if you understand, you affirm him or her lest that also bring about a problem, despite what the authority promises. For what would it mean if just one of those children—each about four or five years old, I guessed—had raised a hand and with impish innocence said something like, “I don’t understand what we’re doing”.
My reverie. My memory, perhaps? My wish? Had I ever been so brave as to draw attention to my incomprehension, or my implied indifference to an endeavor everyone around me seemed so committed to? I scroll through the tapes: not much, I have to say. Oh, there are moments when I have, with confidence usually, asked something that challenged the premises of an exercise; made a statement or two that drove a fork in a process, compelling someone or everyone to halt momentum, deal with me, my opinions, plus the glitches that difference, indifference, or disagreement produces. Freud taught that the unconscious is ever pushing for expression. It wants what it wants, does what it does, and so it traverses repression barriers, leaking out our bungling, our dreams…our distractions, our pleasures. The symptom of distraction, at times aggregated into diagnoses like ADHD (typically aimed at children who don’t listen), constitute the return of the repressed, in disguise. “Sorry, I forgot” says the person who nodded compliantly when asked if he understood, but then behaved in a manner that betrayed a secret truth: his mind was elsewhere. The ego operates imperfectly. Like the Id, it operates unconsciously (not always), contrary to popular opinion, looking to postpone the seeking of pleasure (the sole purpose of the Id), collecting sense data through the body, but failing to plug all the gaps, blocking those ideas that stir in us. The Ego is responsible for the censorship of truth—that moment of compliance in which the secret of inattention is held close to the chest. But then, so, too, might the moment of disclosure by the “brave” person voicing incomprehension be an act of the ego. It speaks to reality. Repression, that signature defense which is meant to keep our pleasure-seeking drives at bay, exerts a pressure to keep the unconscious hidden. This results in a counter pressure towards the conscious, yielding anxiety. Repression proper, as it is called, manifests in the derivatives of neurosis: our displacing symptoms as well as our inhibitions. Our phobias and other compromises.
What is this compromise of play, and what is a game, anyway, if not one more human activity with rules?