Hitting People With Sticks

November 9, 2008

Reenacting is an unusual activity. It combines theater, sports (and generally grueling physical activity), history, and “arts and crafts” into one bizarre hodge-podge of hobbies. It is simultaneously highly combative (Dark Ages reenacting is first and foremost about hitting people with swords – or sticks when you’re starting out), and essentially cooperative.

For me, it is closely linked to that youthful idea known as “play.”  Psychologists have shown that play has an enormous role in our learning process; by experimenting with new ideas and concepts, using them in absurd ways or trying to recreate their traditional use, we develop a more complex understanding of why the ideas have merit, or why certain things are the way they are. That is to say, when one says “I’m now the king, I get to tell you all what to do!” and everyone agrees to it – remember, this is play, and surprisingly enough children WILL actually go along with a statement like that – that person has an opportunity to explore concepts of right and wrong, justice, control, and responsibility in an interactive, legitimate way. Because all of these actions take place within the space of “play,” it is conducted at a relatively low level of intensity, and the consequences are minimal. This is not to say that the events transpiring within the realm of play are any less real – in fact, as anyone who has become consumed by building something out of LEGO can tell you – while one is playing, the world of play is coterminous with the real world. The difference is that one can stop playing a certain game, can redefine the rules of the world, or can “pause” the play-world to discuss the ramifications of a certain action or event in a way that has no analogue in the real world.

Too often – it seems to me – adults forsake the realm of play for the realm of “learning,” a failed attempt to transplant the tools of play into the real world. Learning is not a substitute for play – it can be a supplement, perhaps, but never a substitute – and in abandoning a habit of playing with ideas, adults lose the ability to explore the full consequences, complexities, and ramifications of their actions. Perhaps if our politicians spent more time playing at being politicians rather than trying to actually get work done, we’d be in a happier place 🙂

But back to hitting people with sticks: Reenactment is essentially a form of this play. It is difficult for me to express the very real fear and adrenalin conveyed by a screaming, charging opponent – even though we’ve agreed as part of the rules of our game not to hurt each other. By exploring the complexities of aggressive, violent confrontation, I feel I am developing a number of new concepts: First off, by intimately and voluntarily experiencing real fear, I am building self-confidence. As I come to understand my fear, I come to recognize – thanks to the cooperative nature of play – that this fear is present both in myself and in my sparring partner. I am also coming to recognize the value of cameraderie. Let me tell you, there is nothing like having to trust in your shield-mate to keep a spear out of your gut to inspire a fine-tuned appreciation for cooperation and trust. It is really an amazing experience, simultaneously humbling and inspiring.

In fact, that about sums up everything about the experience of this Reenactment Society. As I wade through history, learning about everything from traditional celtic modes of government to the “swedish hug” – one of the most intimate and terrifying experiences one can have in full chainmail – I find myself constantly turning back to this idea of play. I am thankful to have found an opportunity to play in my adult life, and the unique opportunities it provides makes me suspect that I will carry this hobby with me for much of, if not all of, the rest of my life.

And now, a random, unaffiliated idea not meriting it’s own post…

Idea for band name: Babytheft

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