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!