Who Wants to Play??

“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

–C.S. Lewis author of The Chronicles of Narnia

I’m getting ready to go on holiday this week. The beach is one of those places for me that is enveloped in mischief, curiosity, and unbridled, child-like joy. I love running through the waves with my puppy, making sand castles with my nieces, or discovering hidden, marbled treasures tucked between flecks of sand.

Play is vastly under-rated amongst adults. We often envy the carefree and unabashed freedom of children, missing our opportunities for such outlets due to our “adult” preoccupations. As C.S. Lewis aptly reminds us, play isn’t just for children; it’s something we grow into with a new depth of insight accompanied by that delightful giddiness.

Play can be even more essential to adults than it is to children. Included in the benefits of play are that it helps us build perspective. When we’re upset, a well-timed joke can disrupt our tension and remind us that there’s more to life than the issue at hand. Play can stir our creativity, engage our curiosity, and add texture and richness to any experience.

What I want to focus on, here, is how beneficial play can be for human connection. What adults can appreciate about play that children cannot is that play is profoundly connective in our interpersonal relationships. It’s a powerful, relational force.

As you consider your most impactful relationships, chances are those attachments include a wide range of playful interactions—interactions that served to deepen the attachment. Think back to that moment, with a close friend, of unregulated laughter flitting through the air in melodic tones; or that hour spent helping your daughter do her first cartwheel in the backyard, watching her delicious surprise as she flips and ends up on her feet again; or how about that first concert you went to with your spouse, feeling the bass course beneath your feet and exchanging a glance of excitement as the band takes the stage.

Playfulness melts our defenses. It softens the scars that form around old relational wounds, and it often leaves us feeling surprised to see parts of ourselves emerge that we would normally keep hidden. There is a moment so ripe with possibility when we realize that our defenses are down, and the other person is actually enjoying us, in our unedited form. That’s the essence of playful connection. It’s much more fulfilling than we realize, and much more terrifying than we give it credit for.

Due to the generated vulnerability of such a connection, and how easily it melts our defenses, it’s often the first thing to go in strained relationships. When we’re angry at a loved one, what we tend to withhold is our playful side. It’s an easy way to punish the other, or create distance and protect our vulnerability. With that playful side carefully hidden, we feel more in control and suited up to defend ourselves.

What we don’t realize is that we then cut ourselves off to the possibility of reparative connection with the other. Play can be so healing, and that healing is diminished in our attempt to avoid vulnerability. The risk it takes to be in relationship with others is tremendous. We will get hurt. But closing ourselves off to reparative, playful connection isn’t the way to address that.

We have to face the risk head-on. We have to sit with the fear of being hurt, and choose to continue to connect in spite of the tenuous nature of our feelings. To “play” with a loved one regardless of the threat of being hurt is an exercise in holding onto ourselves without getting absorbed into the perceived judgment of the other. It means we choose to be driven by the intention to love the other rather than the feeling of fear, hurt, or anger.

Interpersonal playfulness isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes maturity, persistence, and courage. For those who stay in it, the results can be surreal. The experience of having an attuned connection with a loved one that’s vulnerable, warm, non-judgmental and fun, is almost intoxicating.

For those of you who are thinking you have been playful and haven’t experienced such results, there’s an important point of differentiation, here. I see couples, in my office, who tell me that they do plenty of fun things together, but those activities don’t bolster their connection. There’s a fundamental difference between engaging in an activity next to someone and doing an activity with someone. The former is an individual experience initiated in the presence of others, while the latter is a group experience that enriches the relationship between the involved parties.

A positive example is that one couple could go running together (a seemingly individual activity) and make a competition of it, cheer one another on as they accomplish new goals, and then talk afterwards about what they learned from the experience. All of those interactions are moment by moment activities that create connection. Contrast that with another couple who goes to a Broadway play, experiences a work of art come to life on stage and shares a brief, intellectual exchange afterwards, meanwhile reserving all emotive experience for their own, internal processing, and depriving their spouse of that connection.

It’s not simply doing life in the presence of others that enlivens attachments, it’s coming to life with others, sharing of ourselves, and seeing them authentically that creates it.

So, with this new, infused meaning behind playful connection, are you ready to play? If you are, you’ll inevitably find textured, robust, delightful interactions unearthed in the space between you and those you care about. Fourth of July is coming up. Most of us will be spending time with valued family and friends. What a great opportunity to play. Any takers???

 

PS. I will be doing a radio segment next weekend. It’s on WCBM talk radio 680, WomanTalk Live, on July 6th at 6:00 pm. This is part two of a series on the dark side of social media, regarding being socially overwhelmed. While it’s a woman’s radio program, it’s applicable to men as well (So don’t be scared away, guys!). Feel free to e-mail me this week if there are questions, thoughts, or ideas you’d like to see included. I’d love to include your thoughts as I prepare!

 

 

Is Happiness the Key to a Great Life?

I received an e-mail from a dear friend this week with this quote attached: “The objects of the present life fill the human eye with a false magnification because of their immediacy.”  The author is William Wilberforce, a man from a previous time who I deeply admire.

As a member of the British parliament, Wilberforce was integral to the abolition of slavery in the British empire.  His foundational traits of persistence, conviction, and passion demanded that he continue to fight the gross injustice of slavery, in spite of equally persistent opposition.  His ability to see beyond the immediate trappings of desire to the bigger picture led to a foundational shift in the British empire.

The desire to be happy is one that most of us have espoused at some point.  How many times have you heard yourself, or someone else, saying, “I just want to be happy.”?  Happiness, in our culture, is often preached as the best pathway to well-being.  Wilberforce’s quote directly addresses that ideal because happiness often becomes a magnified object, distorting our vision of life, and filling our minds and hearts with the immediacy of our desires.  It’s difficult when we become enamored by an ideal that can’t be translated into reality, a desire that can’t be fulfilled in a grounded, realistic way.

The problem with putting all of our stakes in being happy is that happiness is an emotion, and emotions are fleeting; by their very nature they fluctuate, and because of this, valuing them as the goal of self-actualization predicates failure.  When we hope that the elusive goal of happiness will mean the dissolution of our obstacles, resolution of our relational hurts, and the creation of a sense of peace and security, we set ourselves up to be disappointed.

It can be painful to deconstruct the perspective that happiness is not an achievable goal.  However, the disappointment becomes more profound when we consistently experience the inability to reach that goal, and become demoralized.  If you’re looking for an alternative goal, a paradigmatic shift in thinking, may I suggest contentment.

Happiness is the shiny, new toy that quickly loses its brilliance; contentment is the treasured keepsake, unassuming, but unequivocally meaningful.  To operationally define contentment, let’s say that it is a decision we stick with in spite of our emotions.  To be content is to accept and value what we do have, whether we feel good or not.  It’s the gratitude of realistic understanding, coupled with the willingness to continue growing.

Contentment requires the ability to see the big picture and the desire to look beyond instant gratification and value what is and what can be.  Contentment takes significant courage.  Often we become overwhelmed by the fluctuating emotions that seem to indicate a lack of progress.  To be content requires the perspective to look beyond the gray-tinged emotions resolute not to allow those emotions to shape our reality.  Our progress is no more defined by what we feel than our worth is defined by our appearance.  Oftentimes, emotional tension is a marker of progress, not regression.  And that reality doesn’t fit with the elusive goal of happiness.

What would it mean for you to value your current life and situation?  How would your perspective change if you stopped aspiring to be happy?  What does it look like for you, personally, to be content?

This week, I’m deeply grateful for many things.  I had a perspective-altering experience that reminded me that in spite of my emotions, I can value life, I can appreciate the corner of the world that I’ve been tucked into, and I can desire to see that world shaped and influenced into something more unique and inviting.  My hope for you is that you encounter similar experiences that shape your view of life beyond your emotions.  Tucked into your corner, who could you be if you saw beyond the magnification of the pretty, shiny things to the more beautiful, layered substance of life?

 

Resourceful Anxiety

I’m often impressed when I watch friends, colleagues, or clients, come up against deadlines and effortlessly push their way through all of the last minute details with clarity, ease, and accuracy.  I can see the energy and excitement surging as they put the finishing touches on a paper, meet a work deadline, or compile a presentation, spurred on by the threat of the looming deadline.

My brain doesn’t work quite the same way; I’m not motivated by fast-approaching deadlines and I don’t like to come in “under the wire”.  I’m a planner and enjoy the opportunity to entertain a well-crafted, thoughtful response versus coming up with something on the fly. (I’m very impressed by those who can craft immediate, thoughtful responses.)  But when I’m forced to face a deadline change, and there’s no time for calculated reactions, something remarkable and curious happens.

There’s a thin place between comfort and panic, a place where we are pushed outside of our comfort zones, and face fear, with little time to allow it to escalate to the point of panic.  Without that opportunity to process perceived dangers, fears of exposure or vulnerability, and without the option of intellectualizing a plan to protect ourselves from any dangers, we are left to face something deeply intuitive, energized by a healthy fear, and exposed by the inability to control that space.

That thin place is where I reside when I’m in my office.  With the dynamic and evolving process of counseling, there is no way to plan or intellectualize myself out of the curve balls that come.  As that anxiety and excitement surge, I’m left to wrestle my way through an intuitive road map, significantly less comfortable than my intellectual road map, but much more authentic.  This is a resource that I didn’t tap into very well until I faced this unnerving experience day after day in counseling.

For those of you who struggle with anxiety, consider times when the heightened fear led to an emerging resource.  What did that anxiety accomplish for you?  What did you tap into when your usual resources weren’t an option?  How did that emerging character trait influence your sense of self?  What experiences are you avoiding for fear of staying in that thin place?   I’d love to hear your comments, questions, or thoughts about your own resourceful anxiety.

The thin place between comfort and panic is a difficult place to stay.  It’s not easy to navigate that emotional spectrum while under pressure, without tipping into panic.  If you’d like to learn more about how to stay in that thin place, that’s a valuable part of the counseling process.   As someone who manages that tension daily, I’d love to dialogue about that.  What I love about my job is seeing the remarkable and curious resources that emerge from others as they bravely enter the thin places of life.  I’m humbled to see brilliance and vibrancy as a client or friend manages the tension and experiences their untapped resources.  I’d invite you to consider this possibility in your own life.  It’s a beautiful thing.