The Virtuousness of Playfulness

A couple years ago when I began winding down my involvement in Tipple Tuesday (the monthly underground cocktail club I founded in Salem in 2013), I started winding up my search for new models of gathering.

And, as is so often the case, inspiration came from The New Yorker. Specifically a Talk of the Town piece titled “Benjamin Franklin Invented the Chat Room.”

Unbeknownst to me, Franklin had started a conversation club at his local ale house to chat through the thirteen virtues he’d identified as being essential to the development of one’s self and by extension our nascent nation and that even today the 92nd Street Y was facilitating a global network of Ben Franklin Circles, keeping the tradition alive.

And that all seemed very much in line with the transition I was looking to make from cultivating a monthly soiree dedicated to art, surprise, and ephemeral connection to one rooted in conversation, intellectual reasoning, and big ideas with practical applications.

And so, I put Salem on the Ben-Franklin-Circle map. By design and default our monthly gatherings at a local ale house were smaller and more intimate, with more structure and content and follow-through and homework.

From the beginning, I committed to slogging through all thirteen virtues from temperance to humility including chastity, justice, and silence, regardless of what may be. . . But, I was adamant that once we reached the end I was out! The community could continue on in whatever ways made sense to the collective, but under no circumstance could the collective continue to count on me for the same level of personal investment in leadership and stewardship.

Mercifully, that hard line proved easier to maintain than I had first imagined as I was able to announce at our final, wrapping-up, What-Is-A-Virtue? Meeting that I was decamping for the West Coast to launch Abrahamic House. And, helpfully, the wheels for Round 2 had already been set in motion.

At the end of each meeting, in addition to asking what projects folks were working on and how we could help, we talked about what a second round of virtues (sans moi) might look like. We could go in reverse order? Or (my personal favorite) pair each virtue with a vice to really draw out the internal tensions these kinds of virtuous discussions often misconstrue.

In the end, the collective decided to vote in an entirely new slate of virtues. Franklin’s weren’t off the table, but we wanted to dig in not just to what we personally or culturally might think is virtuous but to look at virtures that might give rise to the juiciest conversations. And very importantly, “if you propose it, you facilitate it.”

I was many time zones away for that inaugural voting meeting and we were all on the cusp of pandemic living, but I did get the results and will admit to being pretty surprised. . . Playfulness as a virtue? I guess there are consequences to relinquishing authority.

By the time it was time to discuss Playfulness it was clear that it would be impossible for the Circle to gather in the ale house as it always had, and so the conversation moved online and I was able to join from afar and in a new capacity.

To be free to participate in a conversation you have previously always borne the burden of facilitating is a great gift.

And what a fun and surprising conversation about Playfulness we had! The roles collaboration, consent, and creation play. Why does playfulness seem easier (or at least more appropriate) for children than adults? Was Franklin playful? Can you take playfulness too far or is that just something else: competition, abuse, irresponsibility. Is playfulness an exercise in escape or presence?

Juicy indeed. . .

And next up’s Bravery for any who might be game to play?

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