Stop me before I play again. That’s the feeling I hear echoed from several successful friends. They continue to accomplish and succeed because they’re good; but also beause they’re afraid to be seen as slacking off, or worse, finding that they can’t get started after they stop. I hear that echo in my head, too. Playing can be hard. Gotta work on that.
The concept can sound unnatural to those who figured out how to play before they went to kindergarten. Playing is easy. Get in touch with your inner child? Most have no need. Their inner child has great access to life and living. They’ve been practicing all of their lives. It is so ingrained that it takes as much thought as breathing. Some play so well that they have to be reminded to work. That’s not a bad situation – as long as they play nice and can pay their bills.
Two people in particular come to mind. Both have decades of life experiences and great stories to tell. Both are passionate. Both are stressed out from trying to get work done, and from taking care of others at the same time. When you see how much work needs to be done in the world, guilt is ready to step in if there’s any hesitation in the effort. Especially in America, it can be hard to prioritize play, to be self-indulgent occasionally.
I know the feeling. A few months ago I started taking a day off almost every week. Great! Play time! Ha! After a few years of working seven days a week, frequently 10-12 hours a day, I’ve found it difficult to disconnect with work and reconnect with the rest of life. I’m in a better financial situation than about half of Americans, and I can only pay all of my bills by exercising the credit card at tax time, and deferring lots of repairs. Unwinding after six days of work takes more than a day. Unfortunately, that means a week needs another day or two. Imagine what it is like for those who aren’t in as comfortable of a situation. Stress becomes a constant, and the current culture doesn’t provide much relief. No wonder people are upset and angry. If they had more free time they might even be able to do something about it politically, but that wouldn’t be playing.
When I dance, I smile. I’m lucky. I realized that a few years ago. Have a tough day. Grumble my way to the dance floor, and then laugh at myself as moving to the music makes me smile. For the typical three minutes of a song, there’s no past or future, just finding the flow that moves the dance and the dancers. There’s not enough time to do anything else. I’ve been asked to teach dance, but dancing was the first thing I found that was guilt-free play. I don’t want to turn it into work.
Coincidentally, the two people I talked to this week also find that music helps. Almost as a confession, each revealed their desire to sing. It was a guilty pleasure that they can indulge in that costs little, leaves no trace, and which they can control and access anytime. But, they aren’t comfortable giving it more time.
They are so globally aware that they have difficulty deciding to treat themselves while hurricanes, firestorms, and earthquakes are affecting friends and fellow humans.
I finished most of my work this afternoon. It was a sweet autumn Saturday, one of the last days for farmers markets, easy bicycle rides, and enjoying dinner as the sun is eclipsed by the horizon. There were about a half a dozen work items today. Between a few, I snuck in a computer game (Civilization III). Guilty? Guilty. Out of hours of work on a Saturday, I carved out about an hour of play time. The optimizer in me knows that time would’ve been better spent applying for jobs, advertising a writers workshop, or rearranging my desk. Even if I wanted to grant myself time to away from work, I could’ve meditated, gone for a run, (I actually did practice karate for a while), or even just sit on the deck for a few minutes. Instead, I played a game on a computer, as if I hadn’t already spent too much time working with keyboard and mouse. But now, I’m finally recognizing it as play, and not just a diversion.
There are probably plenty of self-help books, seminars, and coaches to help us foreigners to the work of play. That’s help that comes from the outside. I suspect the best help comes from inside. Be your own authority figure. Grant yourself the opportunity to play. The first step may be playing with the idea of what play looks like for someone more than fifty years past kindergarten.
I’ve ridden my bicycle across America, been glad I did, and not felt a wave of celebration as I crossed my arbitrary finish line (which happened to be at Key West, right after a hurricane blew through. Echoes.) I had the same reaction when I finally made it to the train station in Aberdeen after walking across Scotland, glad I did it, but didn’t have the internal equivalent of a colorful buntings and a brass band. (Check out the books inspired by each – Just Keep Pedaling, Walking Thinking Drinking Across Scotland.)
Between those two events was a time when I worked with a counselor as I navigated me and my emotions through a divorce. It was enlightening and refreshing to hear a professional tell me that my reaction made sense because I’d never learned how to play. I was raised for success. Get the right grades. Get the right degree. Get the right job. Build the right network. Do what everyone else expected. It was a long line of “shoulds”. It was just assumed that I’d learn how to play. Playing in my neighborhood included a strong chance of being beat up. For me, that was physical. For others who haven’t learned to play, they’ve told stories that were more emotional or financial. I retreated into books, and even read the encyclopedia (something harder to do, now.) They had other safe and serious retreats.
There is a frugal aspect to play. Frugality is about respecting resources. That’s usually described as respecting things like money and time. Take it a level deeper and respect the self. Humans are meant to be multi-dimensional, more than just workers, more than only living a life of servitude. We’re social, silly, incredibly imperfect, trying to navigate a chaotic world, and are foolish if we believe we can control everything and that luck doesn’t get involved.
Playing can be hard. But I’ve found play that lives outside others “shoulds”. I should enjoy watching sports, but I’d rather go for a jog than watch a professional athlete. I should enjoy music, but not if I have to sit still through it. I should enjoy reading books, and I do, but I also enjoy writing. It’s now late Saturday night. I spent about an hour writing this blog. That may not seem like fun to many, and it’s not like I’m sitting here laughing while I do it, but I’ve finally realized that writing is playing with words. If it helps others, great; but I know I do it from a sense of play, a freedom to express myself as if no one was watching or reading.
If you’re struggling with finding play, don’t be surprised you’re not alone. As silly as it sounds, successful folks who drive their lives through to-do lists and action items may just have to include another task and give it a high priority: play with play. It may be hard, but it is valuable and fun – eventually.