Discovering Play is Joe Burnham’s forthcoming spiritual memoir. It’s an exploration a paradigm shift that laid the foundation for a life of recovery.
A Childhood Without Play
“I don’t believe that God heals us to use us. I believe He heals us because He loves us, and then He invites us to play.” – @wpy2009 on Twitter (July 13, 2011)
In the summer of 1985, I attended a Webelos Scout weekend with my dad at Peaceful Valley Scout Camp outside of Elizabeth, Colorado. I only have one memory of the weekend and I probably wouldn’t remember where the camp was if I hadn’t worked there a few summers later. But during that summer job, my one memory of Webelos camp was stirred up every weekend as a new crew of soon-to-be Boy Scouts arrived. It took place during registration as my dad and I stood amongst a crowd of other boys. While they all goofed around in the ways that almost every ten-year-old boy does, I stood next to my dad and looked down at them with disapproval. At one point I turned to my dad in disgust and said, “Are we really spending the weekend with these jokers?” He suggested we go home instead. I decided to shut my mouth and stay. As the weekend went on I’m sure I had what I considered fun at the time, but I also know it would be decades before I learned how to play.
As You Play, So You Will Live
Years later, during a conversation that now lacks context, I told my young son, “As you play, so you will live.” As I look back on those words today, beyond what I might have meant at the time, those words reveal an incredible truth. A quick Google search defines play as engaging in an activity “for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” But in truth, play is so much more. An article from Pediatrics identifies play as “essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.” In other words, childhood play is practice for life! If you want to learn how to truly live (as opposed to just be alive), first you need to learn how to play.
If you play with creativity and imagination, you’ll live seeing the world differently and inspire change. If your childhood is passive, waiting to be entertained, you’re set for adulthood as a cog in the machine. If you play well with others, you’ll live in community. If your youth is all about getting your way, you’ll grow up with an entitlement that isolates you from others. If you play with passion and abandon, you’ll live in a world of possibilities and challenges waiting to be overcome. If you spend your early years staying safe, the world becomes a dangerous and fearful place. The list goes on and on. As hard as it is to envision, I was a 10-year old focused on the serious. On the practical. On business. On work. There was no time or place for enjoyment. Or recreation. Or pleasure. Or simple delight.
A Life of Work
This rules-over-imagination approach manifested in every area of my life. I was an Eagle Scout when I was thirteen years old … and I felt like a slacker for missing the minimum time requirements by six months. When leading Scout meetings I had written out schedules and agendas that we strictly followed. I followed all the rules of camping and never got lost, never got a blister, never climbed something I wasn’t supposed to, and never failed to eat a well-made meal or leave dishes uncleaned (my mom says that last part isn’t exactly right, but it’s how I remember it). When focused on school, I was a straight “A” student. I brought the sports section of the newspaper to read on the school bus because cheering for my team was serious business. Life was work, and because life was work, I never learned how to play. I never learned how to live.
This not learning how to live set the stage for a life of work, and a life of work is a life devoted to survival. Power, manipulation, deceit, and control are all tools of the trade. Why? Because a life of work is one of trying to externally manifest a sense of well-being that is internally absent. A life of work isn’t about the task at hand, the people who will benefit, or any other social good. It’s about doing whatever you can so, at the end of the day, you can try to find meaning in your home, your car, your family and friends, your social media following, your bank account, or whatever form of capital you’re seeking to develop because you believe it gives you value.
This explains the crash of Wall Street and the American automotive industry. It explains how big money controls politicians. It explains the amount of consumer debt most American’s carry. It explains the size of our homes, the luxury of our cars, the toys we acquire and never have time to use, and the number of magazines and self-help books we buy because of some promise on the cover. It makes sense of our continued pursuit of more.
When Work Fails
But even the masters of these tactics need to look in the mirror sometimes, and when they do, it becomes apparent that nothing outside of us can define us on the inside. In these moments, when the tactics fail, when work fails, the next easiest path is one of depression, addiction, and other forms of escape. We see it most prominently in the fall of celebrities, sports heroes, and politicians who are supposed to have it all or be something so much more. But it’s also evident in the middle class when keeping up with the Jones’ proves too tiring. It’s why 25% of college students have a diagnosable mental health issue and the average high school student has as much anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950’s. It can even be linked to the far too common sense of hopelessness among the poor and oppressed. Everywhere we turn we can see signs of the emptiness brought about by a life of work that fails to keep its promise of bestowing self-worth.
From Work to Play
This book is my story of learning work, striving at work, escaping from work, and eventually, finding play. I’ve discovered that the words of George Eliot are true, “It is never too late to be who you might have been.” I firmly identify myself as part of the People of the Second Chance (http://potsc.com) … with every reboot as the new beginning of your second chance. Why? Because I’ve lived it. I am living it. That is my story. At the same time, while the stories in this book flow from my life, this book is really all about another story, the story of Jesus. Jesus is the one who taught me to play. He’s the one who taught me how to truly live. More importantly, he’s extending the same invitation to you.
I know for some, the name Jesus makes them shiver. If it does, please don’t stop reading. If you’re like me, you grew up in church and this sour response to the name of Jesus is rooted in what you experienced there. Jesus used to justify -isms and phobias is not Jesus. Jesus used to control the masses, denounce science and reason, or suppress the uniqueness that makes you beautiful is not Jesus. Jesus used to unify people against a common enemy, fuel hatred, or incite violence is not Jesus. The United States has a long history with Jesus, enough so that Steven Prothero was able to write an entire book titled American Jesus that explored all the various causes that people have used Jesus to defend. Ultimately, he concluded that Jesus is America’s national icon. If that’s the Jesus you’ve met, I ask you again, “Please keep reading!”
At the same time, that plea to keep reading comes with a warning. Meeting the Jesus who invites you to live isn’t all sunshine and roses. The journey to living isn’t an easy one. Play doesn’t just happen. We don’t get to move from the pain of work and escapism into play. Rather, reaching a place of play demanded me coming to grips with a childhood largely defined by trauma. Discovering play also meant saying goodbye to work, to addiction, and to escape … the very things that enabled me to survive for so many years. In spite of all the horrible things they did to me and the people around me, there were also times they kept me going, so saying goodbye was like losing my best friends. In other words, if you want to play, then like Jesus, you’ll need to experience your own version of crucifixion and resurrection. This book isn’t about the play itself (maybe that one will come after I’ve lived play for a while longer), but the dying it takes to get to a place where play is possible.
If that seems overwhelming right now, I understand. I’ve been there. I’ve started down the road to play countless times and had to stop because going there was just too painful. It was just too scary. It wasn’t until the fear of losing everything that mattered to me became so much more painful than dying to myself that I was able to take the journey, and even then, for a long time, it was three steps forward and two steps back.
That’s because recovery from work is really about dying to the only life you’ve known in hopes of being raised. Why would anyone take up such a cross willingly? Because you know dying is your only hope for healing. Not just healing for yourself, but to the people you love whose lives your work and escapism has ravaged. For me, not wanting my son to follow in my footsteps made the journey to play possible. For me, realizing the way I manipulated, violated, and betrayed the love of an amazing woman, combined with a longing to undo the damage done, made the journey to play possible.
What to Expect
So given that this book is ultimately about dying to ourselves and finding life in Jesus, what can you expect moving forward? I promise you now that this book is not simply me vomiting my story on a page in hopes that I might prove cathartic for me and inspire you to do the same. I’ve done that … it’s called the early sessions of therapy before recovery begins. It wasn’t very helpful for me, and it certainly wouldn’t be of service to you. Moreover, spewing my crap on the page doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus.
In the same vein, it is not a collection of sad stories presented in a compelling way. That would not only invite depression in myself and others, and it would never get us back to Jesus.
Nor is it my book of blame where I point out everyone who is at fault for the challenges of my life. There is no blame here for three reasons. First, everyone acted out of their own story and struggle which means they did what they could as well as they could. Second, blame does nothing more than enable us to shirk our responsibility to respond to our circumstances in a healthy way. To put this another way, I once heard a pastor say, “While there may be reasons (you acted in a destructive way), there are no excuses (for your destructive behavior).” Third, blame is the tool of those who’ve wandered from God, not those who are drawing close to Jesus.
Contrasting all of these things, this book is my invitation for you to journey with me through my life and, in the process, through your own until we are both in a place of love, grace, healing, and redemption … a place where we can play.