The Duke of She asked Zilu about Confucius. Zilu had no reply.
[Upon Zilu’s return] the Master said, “Why did you not just say, ‘He is the type of person who is so passionate that he forgets to eat, whose joy renders him free of worries, and who grows old without noticing the passage of the years.'” (Analects, 7.19)
Dutiful translators as well as Confucian scholars conspire to make Confucius sound like a stiff, know-it-all fuddy-duddy obsessed with the fine points of etiquette. They want him to speak like an authority-figure because they have made him into one. Instead, this Analect reveals a man of child-like innocence who, even in age, regularly loses track of time. It is touching that this is what he wants to be known for — not his wisdom, his social sensitivity, or any of his achievements. This capacity for forgetting time is what makes all the other attainments worth while.
When was the last time you were so engrossed that you forgot to eat? Do you remember a period in your life when this happened a lot? If it still happens a lot, you are lucky — because commonly it happens less and less frequently as we age. The losing of time is our peek into eternity, and it may be all the eternity we get as human beings. It is the special gift of childhood, and we call it play: in this state there is nothing lacking, no before or after. The sense of time intrudes later, as a residue of regret and anxiety, of things left undone, done badly, or yet to be done. Without the concern for past and future, we are free of time. We do our children a disservice by forcing them prematurely to learn how to schedule; children should be spacey and absorbed, and they should be free play. The revelation here is that the great sage of East Asia, whether he is conducting ceremonies or teaching or trying to tame tyrants, might in fact be playing — not in the sense of “fooling around,” but as the deepest, most serious human engagement.
Living in deep play, one might not even notice the passing of time and the withering of age.