I stumbled upon this quote from British writer Brian Aldiss that is brilliant not only for its biting sarcasm but for its frightening truth: "When childhood dies, its corpses are called adults, and they enter society, one of the politer names of hell. That is why we dread children, even if we love them, they show us the state of our decay."
Those of you who have been following my posts throughout the past year are well aware of the extent to which I have been delving into the trauma I experienced in my childhood and its resonating impact on my adult life. If I asked you to close your eyes and to imagine the word "play," most of you will construct an image of a playground, or an open field filled with laughter, and I'm fairly certain that those images will be populated by children, not adults. But why? If play is so intrinsic to the life of a child that withholding it is often used as a punishment, why as adults are we so hesitant to allow ourselves the luxury of play?
Psychiatrist Stuart Brown says play is akin to oxygen -- "It is all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing." One of the most constructive pieces of advice given to me came from an old-timer in a 12-step meeting early on in my sobriety. This wizened gruff man, who reeked of coffee and cigarettes, took me aside and said: "You'd better stop all that intellectualizing... It's your thinking that got you drunk in the first place. Keep it simple and get back to the basic rule of eight -- eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work, and eight hours of play. If your life starts to feel uncomfortable, chances are one of those eights is out of whack." I've been clean and sober now for over 17 years, and I've sat through hundreds of 12-step meetings, and to this day, I've never heard better, more practical advice.
All of this got me evaluating the role of play in my life, and what I discovered is that I have a guilty association with it as something I use as a vehicle to escape from the real problems in my life, or as just another activity that I have to throw myself into in order to master it. As you can probably surmise, I'm a classic Type A competitive individual. If my year of self-discovery has taught me anything, it is that when I venture down a path to where I think I know the destination, invariably I'm left wandering in a place I hadn't expected, with that cloying feeling of discomfort yet again. In this case, it was no different -- I'd always assumed play for me meant release, but truth be told, it was just another "project" in my life.
In his TedTalk "Play is more than just fun," Stuart Brown offers some incredible insights into the significance of play in adult life, and how important it is in not only the obvious boost to creativity and relaxation but also as a medium of social regulation and personal growth. In fact, there have been many studies documenting that adolescents who are denied the opportunity to play become more aggressive as adults. He makes an interesting point by saying that the opposite of play is not "work," but "depression." When you frame it that way, you begin to understand that the Holy Grail of inner peace we are all seeking may be eluding us in our denial to release ourselves to the beauty of play.
In this TedTalk, I was introduced to my new "favorite" word -- neotony. The Oxford Dictionary defines neotony as "the retention of juvenile features in the adult animal." Many evolutionary biologists such as Stephen Jay Gould believe that our ability to retain some "juvenile" features into adulthood has played a critical role in human evolution. Play begins when a baby responds to a parent making googly eyes, and it stays with us as we explore our the playgrounds of our childhood and later in life when we enter mating rituals when selecting a life partner.
For me, this past year has been a constant process of peeling back the layers of an onion, trying to get to that authentic part of me that for years has been wrapped in layer upon layer of shame, a toxic byproduct of childhood sexual abuse. The antidote to this shame is joy, and I believe that this joy can be found in play. As we all know, joy can never be held in or tethered -- it can only live if we release it, and it is within this release that my freedom will be found.
I invite you all to close your eyes and go back as far as you can in your life to a happy memory you associate with play. What you may discover is that rooted in that memory is the key to unlock the passion in you as an adult. Passion is rocket fuel for joy, and a wellspring of joy will feed your soul, especially when adversity and vulnerability arrive. We can all benefit from a little less structure in our life, and play by its very nature is uncertain. I never thought about it this way before, but maybe that's why I've always been so attracted to the unstructured flow of jazz. In the words of the immortal Miles Davis, "Don't play what's there, play what's not there."
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.