Sense, nonsense and play

Play is as helpful in life, as it is in engineering.  Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash
People differ in their approach to meaning.  Some want life to make sense to the nth degree, permitting no truck with frivolity or nonsense.  Conversely, some love to mess about, and cannot bear the automaticity of an entirely sensible life, finding it unbearably restrictive and boring.  Somewhere in between are most of us, sometimes liking life to cohere and lead us on, and sometimes preferring a loose and rambling journey.


Psychologically, sense can reduce anxiety.  Our logical thought processes are based, in part, on hormonal systems which derive a kind of satisfaction from resolving things.  We get frustrated when we cannot put a tent together, but gain an immediate sense of relief when the tent poles click together in harmony, and we have a protective structure at our disposal.  We have the same approach to many elements of philosophy.  We go in search of self-consistent philosophies (or at least philosophies that appear to be), and then hide under their roofs as though they were homes.


Paradoxically, nonsense can also reduce anxiety.  We go to see comedians because they help us to see the absurdity of life.  We revel in being told how mad we all are.  Laughter is a kind of catharsis, some would say akin to an orgasm, in which muscular tension finds its peak, and then collapses in a heap.  Many people find uniforms attractive on a person; but the same people often like a sense of humour in a person.  It is as though we crave both: we want a uniform that makes secure sense… but we want latitude in that same body and mind, that can lose it, let the hair down, mess about.

In short, being surrounded by sense gives us a tremendous feeling of safety and security; but being infused with nonsense gives us a tremendous sense of adventure and freedom.  The need for both seems part of the human condition.


One can see certain activities that bring both sense and nonsense.  Think of a football game, for instance.

On the one hand, the whole thing is wrapped in convention and formality.  Opposing fans are herded into symmetrically separate parts of a massive, orderly structure.  The fixture is planned to start at an appointed time.  Uniforms are worn by each side, again symetrically opposed.  They play on a uniform, symmetrical pitch, with the lines meticulously maintained by a caretaker.  The game is governed by a written rulebook, and infractions treated with acute seriousness.

On the other hand, contained within the stadium and the game, is an intense journey, full of temporary absurdities, cathartic escapes, and in-jokes.  Although the process is inherently predictable, the outcome is inherently unpredictable.  And people will pay an enormous amount for the privilege of witnessing the same unpredictable process again and again, over seasons and years.

Welcome to play.  Play is the interaction of structure and freedom, of process and diversion.  In engineering, play (or ‘backlash’) is often a necessary ingredient in a designed structure, in order to prevent the jamming of that same structure.  (An example is the ‘play’ necessary to allow cogs in bicycle gears to connect properly.)  In that sense, most good designs allow for, and even celebrate, their own imperfection.

Likewise, psychologically, individual minds, and relationships, will jam if sufficient play is not built into their operation.


You may have noticed that modern economies are very vulnerable to collapse if emergencies happen.  The COVID-19 epidemic of 2020 caused major havoc in the world economy, because the economy was not built with a sufficient element of backlash.  It appeared to make rational sense to have fast-moving economies, with no allowance for spare time.  But then, when spare time was enforced upon populations, economies had no built-in sense of play, no room for emergent change, and a worldwide recession resulted.

In personal lives, too, unless our lives have a balance between rational order and catharsis, sense and nonsense, problems can result.  Too much unpredictability can cause anxiety, and we find ourselves imposing additional rules to bring in a greater sense of order.  Hence the obsessive-compulsive and their rituals, or the controlling partner throwing their weight around.  Alternatively, too much predictability can cause anxiety, and we find ourselves trying to escape.  Hence the oppositional-defiant and their refusal to obey the prevailing rules, or the evasive partner having an affair on the quiet.

RELO 20180125 Remindful logo transparent bg


As always, it is a question of balance.
What elements of your life need sense and structure?  How could you bring back in a sense of order?
Equally, what elements of your life have become stale and boring?  How could you reimpose a sense of freedom, of movement, of catharsis?