Anatomy of Fun By Hilary Lewis
Fun. Sit back and watch a group of kindergarteners on a playground and you’ll see the creation of fun—making fun out of nothing more than imagination and pure joy. Walk into their circle and you will be included instantly. “Want to play spaceship?” “Let’s play monsters!” And as an adult, you are transformed at once into a navigator or a creature with scary claws and a “Rharrhhh” in your voice.
So what changed? When did we lose the ability to make fun for ourselves? Why do we deny ourselves the very thing that renews our spirit and sense of joy, and how do we get it back?
These questions came to me one morning while I was shopping for groceries. The butcher had a pained expression on his face. When I asked him how he was doing that day, he replied, “If only I had more time.”
“What would you do if you had more time?” I asked.
“If I had ten extra hours a day, I’d make this display perfect, have all my orders in, and be able to give the customer service that the corporate boys expect from us.”
“So you’re saying that if you had more time, you’d work for the corporation and give them the unreasonable 200% that they’re demanding? You wouldn’t do anything fun or spend time with your family, you’d work?”
He stopped for a moment and said, “I guess that does sound ridiculous. But, you know, I stopped having fun years ago. My daughter is going off to college and I need to make more money to cover her tuition, my wife has health issues, and there is so much pressure from Corporate.”
Taking the risk of crossing a jillion social boundaries, I asked, “Before you became hyper-responsible, what did you used to do for fun?”
His face lit up. “I used to bowl, and play baseball, and fish—I loved to go fishing!”
The delight in his voice and the subsequent stories he told about sitting in his boat in the misty dawn, the quiet, the solitude—the fun—erased the furrow from his brow and supplanted his grimace with a slight, reflective smile. It changed his face. And that’s when I said to myself, “There’s something to this. Ah Ha! The Anatomy of Fun.”
Anatomy Anatomy is defined as the structure of an organism. So the Anatomy of Fun is the structure of fun. That structure is subjective at best in terms of the millions of things people do for fun, but there are some fundamental similarities that define it as a structure. Whether a pick-up game of baseball, painting, long walks by the beach, reading a good book, or skydiving, the structure is the same: It’s an activity.
Physiology And that’s where we are obliged to meld the structure and the function of fun. Physiology is the function and vital processes of an organism or system. Looking into the anatomy of fun, I found myself listing all the ways (or structure) that people have fun but not getting down to the core of why it is essential to the function and vital processes of our organism.
In addition to asking people what they do for fun, I now ask “Why.” Why do you choose building model airplanes? Why do you go mountain biking? Why do you consider soaking in a hot bath surrounded by candles and soft music “fun”? The reply is always the same, “I feel great while I’m doing it and then I can go back to work (or school or family responsibilities) and feel fresh and ready to tackle anything. I feel balanced.” So the function of fun is to engage in an activity that’s pursued for the sake of excitement or joy (not monetary gain or favor …‘cuz that’s the structure of work). Fun is made for its own sake and rewards the individual with spiritual replenishment and balance.
Resistance You’d think the allure of joy and balance would be enough to propel you into having fun. But think again. We all know someone we really like, who, although he or she is invited, never accepts our invites...someone who has an excuse at the ready and is either excessively busy working or too tired to play because they’ve been working too hard. Perhaps that someone is you. Until recently, I was that person.
Yes, there’s no one like a recovering workaholic to preach the loudest. Responsibility was my cover story, my distraction, my resistance. I juggled three to four jobs, a small farm, parenting, grass-roots politics, and a radio show—I kept the plates spinning and punished myself severely if one of them smashed to the ground. This insanity went on for almost 25 years. I lost sight of my dreams, my aspirations, and got sucked into the vortex of anathema and depression. Worst of all, I used all these distractions as excuses to deny myself, and my family, fun. And to think, I was surprised when my marriage failed! Resistance is the big baddie, the foe of fun. Resistance walks hand in hand with entropy, the mechanism that brings about the breakdown of the organism.
If you recognize yourself here, it’s not surprising. Many of us in the “real world” have sacrificed our joy and connections to the people and things that are most important to us because of fear. We’ve become overly responsible in order to compensate for childhood wounds or for a partner who we don’t trust will pick up the slack. We’re afraid of failure, of being judged as capricious, of losing control. These fears manifest themselves as resistance—“I can’t”, “I shouldn’t”, “I don’t”.
My friend “Ann” is a stay-at-home mom. She keeps tabs on the kids, her husband, the house, groceries, and the millions of endless and thankless tasks she performs seven days a week. She would love to take an art course at the local community college, but denies herself the possibility. I asked her, why? She said, “I’m afraid that my husband will think I’m slacking off and make me get a job outside the home.” She was rendered paralyzed because of the fear of being judged. Instead of feeding her spirit and gaining balance, she convinced herself that she wasn’t worthy of fun—signing up for that art course was out of the question.
We tell ourselves stories—Ann’s story is that she’ll be judged by her husband and forced into the workplace. My butcher’s story is that if he works harder someone will acknowledge his efforts and give him more money for his daughter’s schooling. My story was if I stopped trying to control everything in my life, it would all fall apart and we’d be homeless. The thing to remember is: These are stories. They do not necessarily represent reality. If Ann told her husband that she was signing up for a watercolor class on Thursday nights, who knows, he might be her biggest supporter, he might even like to join her. She’ll never know because she’ll never act. She has her story. My butcher could work 24 hours a day perfecting displays, but the corporation would most likely repay him with more work and his expected yearly raise. But you know what, when I stopped controlling everything and everybody, no one died—we’re not homeless. And I’m learning to make and have fun.
Baby Steps Old adages like, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” remain in our shared culture because, to some extent, they’re true. If you are one of the many who feel the need to burst forth and reclaim your sense of fun there are a few relatively simple things to do.
Number 1: Identify one activity that you can reclaim. Something that you already know how to do but have denied yourself for an extended period of time. This is important because it’s familiar, and familiarity reduces fear and thus decreases the chance of resistance. Pick up your guitar, write a poem, sketch a bowl of fruit, go to a movie with friends. Reacquaint yourself with something that used to bring you joy.
Number 2: Stop talking about ‘trying” to make more time for yourself. MAKE time for yourself. As Yoda said to Luke Skywalker,” Try? There is no try—do or do not.” Trying is never doing. Only doing is doing.
Number 3: Don’t apologize for taking time to play and resist the urge to explain your behavior. Be specific: “I am going for a walk.” or “I will be unavailable for the next 30 minutes—so unless you’re bleeding from an artery, I am not to be disturbed.”
Number 4: Play your guitar, write a poem, sketch a bowl of fruit, go to the movies. Do it.
The Payoff Our kindergarten friends would shake their heads in disbelief if they knew how we struggle with having and making fun. How can something so simple, so necessary, so…FUN, be anything other than effortless?
So I ask: What are you waiting for? Life flows forward without regard for your fears and resistance. You either choose a life of mediocrity or one full of excitement, fun, and experiences. It all comes down to choice.
Go make some fun. And when you do, you’ll see that the organism is nourished, comes full circle, and regains balance. You’ll rediscover the thrill of the playground, the delight of casting down fear and replacing it with courage—simply by acting like a child again, making fun out of nothing more than imagination and pure joy.
Hilary Lewis is co-owner of an environmental analytical chemistry laboratory and creative writing instructor. She lives with her six dogs, five cats, two horses, and 14 year old son in Olympia, WA, and is reachable at [email protected]