Be Playful

Posts Tagged ‘activism

‘There is an unnecessary gap in today’s world between the world-changers and the life-celebrators.’
~ Harvey Cox

Photo by Bahman.

If you asked people what they would like to achieve in life, what they see as their ultimate purpose, I think most people would say making the world a better place.

The best advice I can give to making the world a better place is to become a clown. Clowns make the best world-changers, and here are the reasons.

Clowns embody the change they wish to see.

Photo by esacarola.

One of Gandhi‘s most famous lines is:

‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world.’

Clowns are fun-loving, they give life a full embrace, they are artistic and musical, unafraid to stretch their limitations, even at the risk of looking silly. This is the kind of person I like to meet, the kind of person I would like the world to be full of.

I don’t know if you’ve ever met an activist. I’ve met a few, and I have a lot of respect for everything they do. Some activists are brilliant, they recognise the need for clowning and fun. However a lot of activists are deadly-serious, seeing the work they do to make the world a better place as the be all and end all. This is dangerous.

It is dangerous because if these activists achieve their goals, then the world they create is likely to be a deadly serious place, a place of efficiency and productivity where wonder and playfulness are frowned upon.

It is also dangerous because these activists tend to be serious because they believe they have the final answer that everyone should agree with. If anyone disagrees with them, then many would see it as acceptable to use violence. A classic and tragic example is ‘communist’ Russia; another equally tragic example is ‘democratic’ Iraq. Is it really possible to bring about a better world using violence and bloodshed?

Clowns are a direct challenge to power

Photo by Brave New Films.

Powerful people would like to have us believe that the world is a dangerous place, that we should be afraid, that we need looking after. It is important for powerful people to create this feeling, because it means that we become dependent on their power to protect us, further justifying their power. For an example, think war-on-terror, and the extra power that governments have given themselves because of the fear of terrorism.

In having fun, and refusing to live a life of fear, clowns are a direct challenge to power. This is why the FBI identified the nonviolent Carnival Against Capital as a terrorist group. It is also why the protesters against Nuclear Missiles in Greenham Common dressed as teddy bears and held a picnic on a nuclear silo. The message of clowns is clear: we are not afraid, and we will have fun.

Photo by Chance Gardener.

The humour of clowns is also a direct challenge to power. Many jokes make a mockery of authority figures, subverting the position of power that they assume. Adolf Hitler was so afraid of humour that he banned any jokes about the Nazi Party.

Another great place where political power is challenged in this way is in street carnivals. In the past, carnivals would be the one time when all people would be seen as equal, when the village fool would be made a king. The loss of this event, the unwillingness of people in power to engage in frivolity is no doubt a loss to society.

Clowns aren’t afraid to look silly

Photo by blmurch.

World-changers often have to say things that are uncomfortable to hear, that go against the status quo. Because of this, they are likely to be mocked and ridiculed in an effort to get them to shut up.

Clowns seek to be mocked and ridiculed, so mockery and ridicule is unlikely to silence them! Clowns have the courage to see the world as it is, and as it should be, and to proclaim aloud the difference between these two.

Clowns bring smiles, joy and laughter to the world

Photo by clspeace.

If I think back on the people who have most positively influenced my life it is not the grumpy teachers whose class I had to sit on every week for years on end, nor the bossy supervisors that I have been blessed with in certain workplaces. Rather, it is the joyful strangers who offered me a smile when they could see the despair on my face, the friends who have come alongside me and helped me to envision all that I can be.

I am firm believer in the idea that change begins at home, in the immediate world and community around us. If you can bring joy, laughter, smiles and hope to this community, then I have no doubt that you will have made the world a better place.

Let us go out into the world, and be the change we wish to see.


Photo by moriza.

If you have lived in a city or large town for any period of time, you will have probably noticed how commericialised the city centre has become. If the centre of a city defines the identity of that city’s residents, then it would be true to say that the urban dweller’s primary identity is that of the consumer. Who we are is defined by what we are able to buy.

This means that it is hard to do anything playful in a city without buying something. Shopping, the cinema, restaurants and cafes, the local pub – even some city parks now charge an entry fee.

So, here are some brilliant completely free ways to be playful in the city. As a bonus, many of these ideas subvert the high-pace and the commercialisation of city life.

1. Go on a Zen Walk

Go to a busy place in the city that you like, maybe even somewhere you pass every day. Decide on a short route of about 500 metres (1/4 mile). Walk the route as slowly as you dare, breathe slowly, and let yourself become part of the city space. Pause at the end of your walk to reflect on things you noticed.

2. Go flash-mobbing

Join a large group of people in a synchronised, seemingly random act. If there isn’t a flash-mob group in your area, set one up. For inspiration, there are some great videos on YouTube.

3. Join your local freecycle group

Buck the buying addiction and give stuff away. You’ll also find many of the things you need for free too.

Note: Freecycle does send a lot of emails. I recommend setting up an email filter with a folder dedicated to freecycle.

4. Find a spot you like and read a book

You can get free books on bookmooch, or from your local library.

5. Give someone a smile

On the bus, across the street, in the shopping mall. Most people will look away, but nothing can beat getting your smile returned.

6. Visit a museum

Did you know that it’s completely free to visit all publicly owned museums in the UK, from galleries of art, to museums dedicated to local relics? I love the silence in museums, and they are great places to get inspiration, or to sit quietly and day dream.

7. Do an A-Z walk

Look up the first street (beginning with ‘A’) and the last street (beginning with ‘Z’ or a nearby letter) in the index of a city map. Walk the most direct route from one to the other.

8. Join in with a carnival

Carnivals and festivals have a lively, vibrant atmosphere. Don’t worry about not fitting in. One of my favourite festivals in Manchester is the Muslim celebration of Eid. I wouldn’t feel comfortable joining in, but I love the buzz of the festival atmosphere.

9. Be an insurgent for peace and justice


Photo by kalandraka.

Whether it’s starting a free hugs campaign, offering to spend time with an elderley neighbour, or inviting a homeless person around for a meal, you can start to be the change you wish to see .

Your Thoughts

How have you been playful in the city? What other ways can you think of for being playful? Let me know how you get on if you try any of these.

dont-shoot-the-clownsIn March 2003 trainee lawyer Jo Wilding visited Iraq as an independent observer to the Anglo-American invasion. She found many shattered lives; people’s homes and businesses were frequently destroyed by stray bombs. Others were shot or imprisoned and tortured arbitrarily if there was even a remote suspicion that they were part of the insurgency against the invading forces. Experiencing firsthand the everyday brutality of war led Jo to question the way the world is. She started wondering why we allow anyone to produce weapons, let alone use them:

‘Why is it considered a legitimate way to live, for a person to get up in the morning, kiss his or her kids goodbye, and go and spend the working day experimenting and discussing and planning and building novel and ever-more efficient ways of severing soft, beautiful, living human bodies?’

She also asked people in Iraq about their experiences under the rule of previous dictator Saddam Hussein, and was told many stories of oppression and torture. Yet the US – and Britain – supported Saddam’s regime whilst it suited them. This led Jo to ask:

‘How many people tonight will be tortured in the darkness in countries which our governments still support, fund, arm, supply with torture instruments? And what will it take for us to stand up and stop them?’

Whilst in Iraq observing Jo met a 4 year old child called Mohammed. His house – a farmhouse in the countryside, many miles from any US or British targets – had just been bombed from the air. His sister was dead, his newlywed aunt missing, his home destroyed. Yet in the hospital, Jo’s friend Shane started blowing bubbles – allowing Mohammed to forget the devastation for a moment and break out into a smile.

‘Of course his trauma would take more than a bubble to heal, but the memory stayed with me. A friend set up a website called Circus2Iraq. I sent out an open email inviting circus performers to come to Iraq, warning that it was a dangerous place and travel insurance wouldn’t cover it. Despite poor pay and conditions, I got a bunch of clowns.’

In January 2004, Jo started a tour of Iraq with the circus. Parents and teachers saw children who had not smiled since the invasion break out in laughter. Children who had been obsessed with the war, drawing only pictures of planes, guns and soldiers, began to draw clowns – to see the possibility of a world outside of war and violence.

Reading ‘Don’t Shoot the Clowns’ I saw the power of play at work in a country completely marred by horrific violence. I began to realise just how powerful playfulness can be. Four things stood out most for me:

1. Playfulness heals

Seeing a circus was not going to cover over the wounds and bring instant healing for the children of Iraq. But it did give them an opportunity to laugh, and to begin to be children again.

Play is healing both for those who engage in it, and for those who witness it.

2. Playfulness engenders trust

Jo’s visit to Iraq was primarily as an independent observer, documenting atrocities under Saddam, and those committed by the occupying forces. Many people were afraid to tell their stories for fear of reprisals – thinking that Jo may be on the side of the British and American soldiers.

Seeing Jo as a clown, however, bringing delight to the eyes of children and adults alike, allowed people to trust her.

Another occurrence of trust through play happened when the circus visited a town in Kurdistan. They were asked for $60 each to stay – money they did not have. However, after giving a circus performance for the soldiers on duty, they were let off paying the fees. Play is an act of mutual giving – and can get you a free ride.

3. Play crosses cultural boundaries

In spite of language difficulties, and being in an increasingly conservative Muslim country, the circus was well received everywhere they went.

The children watching clowns from other countries – from countries that were invading their country – could see beyond the ‘adult’ boundaries of difference and exclusion. Play and fear cannot live together.

4. Play allows for the imagination of new possibilities. It instills hope.

For the children whose lives it touched, the circus was a moment of sparkling colour in a gray, dark and fading world. Children who had lost all hope would often tell the clowns the dreams that they had for their life.

Playfulness disturbs the status quo and provokes a response. Just as the response to violence is often further violence – the response to playfulness is often a life transformed by hope.

Have you ever met a playful person who made your day brighter, or gave your life a new perspective?

Don’t Shoot the Clowns: Taking a Circus to the Children of Iraq is available from and

You can read Jo’s blog, Circus2Iraq, here.

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