I’m staring at a woman across the restaurant whose body is the size of a 7-year-old’s. Her arms bend awkwardly, her feet dangle, her big, sturdy wheelchair swallows her whole. The child in me wants to ask, “What’s wrong with you? Why is your body that way?” The adult in me shuts up, stays put. Interrupting her dinner, asking these things, drawing attention to what makes her different from me—those are things we’re taught to never do. We’re taught to be quiet, to shun our childlike inquisitions.
Why? Because we’re fearful. We’re taught to be fearful, to not ask, to not reach out, to not bug, because if we do, we’re being inappropriate, wrong, invasive. But children are invasive. Children don’t hold back, they connect and investigate and learn. They do so because their natural state of being is play. They do so because they are seeking happiness, and happiness means connection with oneself and others, and being happy means being playful.
So while my adult glues my ass to the chair, my childlike mind wanders over there, introduces myself, feels her hand in mine—all the differences, all the things I see as scary. As soon as we reach out and touch, fear dissipates. I am she, she is I.
It doesn’t just happen in a restaurant with a disabled person. It happens when engaging with those deep in grief. It happens when engaging with ourselves when we feel lost. We avoid what we fear. At all costs.
I think about this woman while speaking to Kara Fortier on her podcast, PlayGrounding. Her podcast is all about play—what is it, how and why we seek it.
Play dictates my life. When I am in play, I am most happy. And if I’m happy, I’m most authentic and real. When I’m most authentic and real, I connect with others more deeply. And when I connect with others more deeply, they feel a sense of freedom to be less fearful and more open themselves. And that, that effect of inspiring others to pursue a life of playfulness—that is everything to me.
We avoid fearful situations. We latch onto fearful memories. We hear someone share about a dozen joyful experiences and one grief-stricken story, and all we remember is the grief, because we fear it. We shudder from sadness but are captivated by it, wanting to sit on the sidelines, staring, judging, wondering, looking away, avoiding. But a child doesn’t. As children, we walk right up and engage. Ask the intruding questions innocently. That is what I want to do with this woman but fear holds me back. I must be polite, appropriate, an adult.
“Be careful,” he warns as I scurry up the side of the hill, toward the rock formations that beg my fingers to grip and climb them. The ground—unsteady, wobbly—makes my feet slide with each step. I grip the knee-high foliage around me and the rocks close by for protection, yet fear, that’s not really present. I want to play, I want to explore. I want to go the untraveled path, make up my own.
“Be careful,” he warns. His intentions are good; he wants to leave with me in one piece. But his intentions shut down my childlike voice that’s encouraging: Go, faster! With his words of warning, my adult voice rushes in, Be careful. You could break a leg, you could drop 20 feet below, you could crack your skull open, you could… The list ricochets in my head, and I sense my body adjust. The sense of play, the sense of freedom, it slowly seeps from my soul.
When we hold back because of fear, we heighten the barrier between adulthood and childhood, a disassociation from being pure and playful. Our childlike tendencies make us feel invincible, empowered to be whatever we want, to express whatever we want. That sense of freedom—that is strength, that is what makes us love deeper, harder.
And while, yes, of course, as adults, with a more developed ability to self-reflect, I’m not suggesting we ignore politeness and manners, but remain inquisitive and embrace our childlike playfulness. Don’t shun it. Ask those questions and connect with others who are different. We can still be polite and yet break these barriers we’ve create. A touch, a smile, connection, isn’t that really just what we all want and need?