The psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown says, “the opposite of play is not work – the opposite of play is depression.” In a time when many of us are unable to go about our normal work routine or not permitted to work at all, the conversation of isolation, depression, and anxiety is coming to the forefront. Obviously COVID-19 itself plays a central role in these emotions, but in this moment, I would like to discuss the idea of play versus work and the significant role that burnout, exhaustion, and mental illness can play in accompanying a seemingly rewarding schedule of overwork.
There is understandably a balance to this. We all have responsibilities and I know I speak from a place of privilege. The last thing I intend is to be another person lecturing about self-care. Instead, I feel as though what we all need right now is to forgive ourselves. To be kind to ourselves. And more than anything, to create space for play. There are possibly fatal repercussions if we don’t – and we all have that book on our bedside table we’ve been looking at for a year, too exhausted to dive into before we turn out the light.
On September 24th, 2019, I fell asleep while driving back to Wyoming from an AMGA Rock Guide Course in Colorado. I am beyond lucky that no one else was on the open road, that I had already passed the Beaver Rim overlook and the steep drop-off below, and was able to walk to cell reception. In my second year of graduate school at the University of Wyoming and already in the midst of a full semester, I thought I could bounce back from the 10-day course in Eldorado Canyon while doing schoolwork at night. In fact, I was proud of seemingly being able to do-it-all. It took me a long time to realize this idealization of a workhorse was not something to be revered. Many of us grew up with parents we looked up to, perhaps because of their dedication to work or busy lifestyles. Although I do not wish to discredit this kind of drive (especially because it gave me the life I have today), it has become clear that our energy only has so much to give in a day. In a world of double-shifts, too much coffee (arguable), energy drinks everywhere, and seeming demand to be constantly doing something ‘worthwhile’ it is easy to forget to simply play. I used to be the person that would tell themselves that they thrive in the one-day-a-month off work life and even felt like it made me worthy of…something. I was so off-course in this mindset. Looking back, I wasn’t the compassionate friend, sister, daughter, and wife that the people around me deserved – I didn’t have the bandwidth. Even in the middle of the semester without a day off in weeks I couldn’t say no to a shift serving tables or a volunteer event. I realize that not everyone has this luxury of playtime, especially parents in a time like COVID-19 and with wildfires raging throughout the West. I am simply noting that even when the opportunity presents itself for a ‘play’ day, it is so often aligned with fulfilling expectations - from others or ourselves.
This can look like so many things, and I can only speak from my own experiences of going climbing when what I really needed was to be alone or making sure my ‘self-care’ dog walk was accompanied by an informative podcast, because God forbid I consider it a waste-of-time. It looked like being so overwhelmed that I ignored loved-one’s phone calls, even though that’s what I needed the most. Needless to say, my body gave up on Rt. 789 about 10 miles from home the night I crashed.
Dr. Brown’s research displays ways that play not only increases creativity and innovation, but also its centrality for fostering empathy and shaping the manner our brains navigate the world around us. In a time when many of us find ourselves with more time, it is so easy to feel trapped, unworthy, or even shameful. But the question is: unworthy of what? Joy? Play? I implore all of us to find time to recreate, just for the sake of it. Sometimes it may look like rock climbing with friends, a walk with your dog, hours on the couch, or sleeping on the soft grass. Go crazy and take a nap when you feel like it.
My mom told me a story about a friend who argued that she if really wanted to make time for herself while raising three young girls and going back to school, she would ensure it happened. Although she was talking about using a Nordic-Track that was often more of a clothes-line than an exercise machine, this argument stuck with me. In the end, play does more for us than we often appreciate. I am writing this as much for myself as for others – so let’s all try to take these moments and simply, play.