If you are not willing to be playful, you are not able to grow, to heal or to form resilient and deep connections with other people.
Kids build identity by play exploration, so why don’t earnest and resistant understand and engage that process?
Being playful demands leaving the comfort of your own rigid expectations, assumptions, beliefs and rules to be present, flexible and ready to try something new. You can’t play if you aren’t willing to take a bit of a tumble, laughing and trying again to make a hit, pop a joke or create a moment.
For those who wear their armour heavily, this playfulness often feels like an insult to their worldview, a kind of frivolity that doesn’t respect the burdens they have chosen to assume, the strictures they have learned to assert.
Staying fixed in your own identity props and resisting play that requires you to lighten up may keep you in your comfort zone, but it doesn’t move you along in your journey to new, unknown and potent. Kids know that they are on a journey, know that they have lots of possibilities ahead of them which will require lots of learning, lots of new skills and lots of playful exploration to get them to a better, more mature and more whole place.
Stopping your journey can happen for many reasons. You may be afraid of losing what you have now, may be afraid of the challenges ahead, may be afraid of failing, may be afraid of having to face your own fears.
Did you notice a pattern in that last paragraph? Change is always scary — after all, we can never know the future — but kids know (and pray) that it is inevitable. Seasons pass and so do we, moving through the cycles & stages of a human life. The only alternative I know is to just declare “game over.”
When we resist change, resisting the play that comes with it, it becomes easy to diminish or bad-mouth others who are doing the kind of thing we have decided that we don’t need to do. Sometimes we just can’t see the value in their playful, explorative choices and sometimes we actually see their choices as destructive, challenging and scary.
Knowing what we don’t want to be, the places we don’t want to go, the ways we don’t want to be seen often seems much simpler than knowing who we actually are. To know ourselves we have to be willing to swing the pendulum wide in a playful way, finding places where our heart naturally comes to rest. Going past the point of balance is the only way to know that we have come far enough to identify our own centre.
As a writer, I know how much play is involved in learning to express ourselves. We try on different attitudes, different looks and different voices to find what works for us. A bit of this, a touch of that, a swipe of something else and after much experimentation we find our own personal way of expressing ourselves in the world.
Knowing my own “Jonathan Winters” gift of speaking in characters from even before I knew my own trans heart, much of my play was speaking in other tongues. By taking a position I could speak from another point of view, a tool which not only allowed me to explore parody but also gave me a compassionate understanding of what our shared world looked like from other, very different viewpoints.
My expression is still playful, offering sly reflections on what others share, listening close and mirroring them in a way which allows them to see themselves more clearly, allows them to reshape their choices. As Bessel van der Kolk notes, effective mirroring is a key to growth and healing beyond trauma.
Those on a journey tend to enjoy and value my playful exchanges, but those who are resisting change usually find me annoying. They know that I am wrong, but they can’t express what is right, as they haven’t done the positive excavation work to claim their own beliefs and understandings.
No one thinks they are against play and exploration. For example, they see it in young people and it warms their heart, even as they resist the call to the kind of playful exploration which can get them spattered with pizza and looking silly. Those who resist play always have prepared good reasons for keeping their defences up, for pushing away jibes and winks, for armouring up their own identity.
For me, queer spaces are places where play is supported, venues that don’t try to teach the right way to be but rather offer delight in the different, the bold, the brave and the witty. Good play creates laughter, and laughter is the only effective social lubricant, breaking down the barriers we think protect our dignity to reveal our continuous common humanity.
Kids understand the powerful connective nature of play. When they meet other kids, they want to play with them, sharing their games, their skills and their knowledge, creating bonds of exploration & growth.
The gang that plays together stays together. That’s even true when much of play is fighting, the kind of fighting that challenges skills, testing us to develop discipline, power and grace. Kids have always fought between themselves as a form of play, learning to fight fair and fight fun, to get better and more clear about how to succeed in the fights we will have in the future. Conflict as a creative exercise is an essential form of play to gain mastery, as any tiger cub will be happy to demonstrate.
Resisting play is resisting that process which opens us up, showing us where growth is needed, where development is required. It is resisting the gifts that play can bring us, including new knowledge of ourselves, including knowledge of our current limits & weaknesses, and understanding of new ways we can connect and bond with others.
“I’ll play with you.” Isn’t that what most kids want to hear, knowing the gifts and joys that come with play, the growth, the awareness, the presence and the bonding?
Resisting play, staying defended in our own current armour, not only denies us those precious gifts, it also attempts to diminish others who are committed to the growth that comes with play. That, I suspect, is not only an insult not only to the journey that others are on, it is a denial of our own human journey.