the practice of play

Yesterday I was chatting with a friend and we got onto the subject of playfulness. You know, doing the sorts of things that have no particular agenda, whose outcome we are not seeking to control. In fact, the sorts of things whose unpredictability ends up delighting us in some way, bringing a smile to our faces.

As I travel around and meet leaders of ministry teams, community service projects and mission training locations, I like to ask them a question. It’s a question that often catches them off-guard, has them stumbling over their words as they try to find what they think would be a suitable response. And often, even as the answer comes out of their mouth, it’s as if they somehow wish the answer could be different. 

My question is this: what do you do to have fun? How do you play?

The ability to switch off and relax is one of the most under-rated means of building a resilient life. In fact, it’s not just under-rated, it is actively maligned. We worry: if we have fun, perhaps we are not working hard enough, taking our responsibilities seriously enough, or ‘laying our lives down’ (a particularly heavily laden religious phrase) enough. Hard core leaders don’t have time to have fun, do they?

Of course, our culture of busyness hasn’t helped our sense of good Christian service. Technology permits (or forces) us to be connected 24/7, making it even more necessary for us to learn the difficult discipline of setting boundaries around our responsibilities and commitments. Even for those of us more-or-less following office hours, work doesn’t end when we leave our desk or that last meeting of the day. In terms of fun, this means that any activity can be interrupted by a notification that takes our minds, if not our bodies, back to that thorny staffing issues or the question of where next month’s project costs are going to come from.

This isn’t a post about boundaries. Although it’s hard to talk about having fun unless we are first determined to carve out work-free zones in our schedules. If you get stuck at this point, it’s probably worth taking some time to reflect on what makes it hard for you to switch off. Just a thought.

These are the top 3 reasons people give for feeling unable to allow themselves time to have fun. Perhaps you identify?

1. I feel guilty because others aren’t having fun. Why do I feel I deserve this?

2. It feels inappropriate. The work I do is serious, why should I have fun?

3. I don’t have time. If I have time for fun, shouldn’t I be working more?

These reasons are especially real for those of us whose work is focused on helping others less fortunate than ourselves. It’s hard to believe we deserve the luxury of having fun. And yet, without fun, our capacity to help others is severely limited over the long haul. So let’s talk about why we should have fun in spite of these hang-ups! Doing things that lighten our inner landscape is crucial if we are to continue to carry the leadership load. Here’s why:

—Having fun builds relational bonds, among family members or friends, in ways that create a sense of belonging, inclusion and connection. These fun moments actually make the rest of life go a lot more smoothly, since they create more trust, a sense of shared values, and the ability to resolve conflict more effectively.

—Having fun reduces stress, and if it’s true that cross-cultural workers can experience as much stress as combat soldiers, this is probably important! There is a physiological effect on our bodies when we have fun, so that the effects of stress are offset and our systems are returned to a place of health.

—In addition to its stress-reducing effects, having fun can make us smarter. We learn best when we are having fun, acquiring new skills without even realising it in the areas of language, numbers, problem-solving, and creativity. It’s a no-brainer!

—For many of us, stress levels have knocked our hormones out of whack in ways that impact on our metabolism, immune function and neurotransmitters. Having fun helps to redress this imbalance, giving our bodies the chance to function in more optimal, life-giving ways. In practice, this means we are less tired and cranky, and more energetic. 

In short, if you sense that you are taking life too seriously, feeling your age (and then some) or that sparkling joy is a distant memory, it is most certainly time to make more room for fun! 

Perhaps you have read to this point and you’re asking the question, ‘How?!’ How are we to have fun, when we’ve not been in the habit of leaving time to play? Fun doesn’t necessarily mean holding your sides with belly-aching laughter - although it might. Fun is very subjective and personal and really means anything that lightens your mood and lifts your spirit in life-giving in a light and energising way.

This could be something to think about this week: what is fun for you? And how can you do more of it?

A playful thing to try: head out on a contemplative walk without a destination in mind. Simply set out, inwardly blessing this time and releasing any desire for a goal or outcome. Just see where your feet take you. You aren’t trying to get anywhere in particular - just be present moment by moment to the nudges of the Spirit, and to what catches your attention. Pause often, linger when you’d like to. Walking in this ‘playful’ way helps us to release our grasp, to let go of our desire to control even our leisure time. And, if you try it, I trust you will be delighted by some unexpected gift during this time of play!