November 15, 2010

The Art of Becoming an Adult: The Loss of Play

It was the last day of school, the last day of sixth grade. I was twelve. It was warm outside, summer, and we were riding the school bus home. I was sitting with my friend Erin, who lived in my neighborhood. Her bus stop was first and mine was right after her's. As she was getting off she said to me, "Do you want to come over and play after you get home?"
I was struck, momentarily, with a strong feeling of panic. We were getting too old to "play". Next year we would be in seventh grade and we would all turn thirteen and then we would be teenagers and teenagers don't "play" anymore.
"Yes." I said and she got off the bus. The bus rolled up the hill to my bus stop. I kept thinking about playing. This would be the last summer we would "play". School would start in the fall and then next summer I would get a job babysitting and I would be working all summer. Then back to school work and then back to working in the summers. This schedule would continue through college. Then college would end and I would get a job and work all the time. Then I would work until I retired, in my sixties. So, really, this was the last time in my life I would have to "play" until I retired. The enormity of this fate overwhelmed me with grief and sadness. It was like a death sentence of a certain kind. I resigned myself to it and decided I would enjoy it as much as possible, my last few months of "play" in my life for the next fifty years.
Fast forward twenty-one years to today. The fate I thought I had when I was twelve has certainly been my life since then. I played out my last summer and babysat or had a job or was in school all of those years in between. In college, I even worked nearly full time and went to school full time. In those college years, in the summers, I would work a full time job and a part time job. Now my life revolves around work. I spend so much time driving to work, driving home from work, doing work, doing chores and work surrounding the demands of personal life that it seems impossible to "play". With a few exceptions, like when I went to Australia and New Zealand for five weeks or when I moved back to Pennsylvania and was looking for a job for six weeks, I have always worked. Of course, I have had a few two week or one week vacations here and there. But I ask myself, what kind of life is this? Is this what adult life is really supposed to be? Who decided this? Who dictated this?
We spend our working lives craving play. During the two times in my adult life when I took a short break from working, I actually started to crave work, in a healthy way. When we are children, adults directly or indirectly teach us what it means to be an adult. They structure our lives, giving us time to play ("Children should play."), they hand out chores, send us to schools, they teach us what it means to be responsible. I think they are wrong. The Art of Becoming an Adult involves one important responsibility, Balance. A real adult will be the champion of their own balance. When we crave play, we need play and when we crave work, we need work. All of this needs to be done carefully, to assess whether there is something else going on, like avoidance or instant gratification or self worth issues that may eat out a hole in our soul. We NEED to play as much as we need to work. This is not some let-me-warm-your-heart-up-feel-good message. Play never stopped being fun or important just because another birthday came around. Sure, sometimes life calls for a time when you have to dig some trenches and work, but as often as we have the luxury to do so, we should balance it with play. Without play, we are creating a negative, off-balance world. So, as a real adult, take on the responsibility and go out and play.

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