The blessing of play

Maddie loves the water. My family met Maddie, a husky mix, on a recent camping trip to Northern Wisconsin. We were swimming in the lake near our campground when Maddie arrived on the scene, dragging her owner by the leash, intent on getting to the water as quickly as she could. When her owner set her free, Maddie didn’t swim, she leaped through the shallow water, her mouth open in a huge grin, her teeth grabbing and biting at the waves from passing boats. Maddie’s owner apologized for disturbing our swim, but we quickly reassured him. We loved Maddie! We joined her in play. Chasing her through the water. Petting her wet head when she came near. Cheering her on as she leapt and leapt. Maddie couldn’t get enough of her water playtime, and neither could we. 

It was a challenge to carve out this summer vacation with my family. Everyone warned me that I’d be “drinking out of the firehose” for my first few months here at the Outlook, and they were right. But I wanted to make good on a promise to my kids. We’d still go camping. We’d still make time for play. There were moments in my first month and a half when I thought to myself: “I can’t do this. There’s no way I can get away.” But as much as I feel called to be editor of the Outlook, I feel just as called to marriage, to motherhood and to my personal well-being. A week of play with my family was a priority and the amazing staff at the Outlook helped me keep my promise.

In this issue, Sarah Curtis writes about the “mind scroll” she and her female friends are plagued with on their summer vacation. They couldn’t just stop to relax or play because they were constantly creating to-do lists in their minds, making sure they had the necessary groceries and cleaning the house they’d rented for the week. I knew this same mind scroll on my family’s vacation. I was actively planning snacks, packing bags for the day’s activities, cleaning the camper, contemplating ideas for my next editorial and content for future issues of the Outlook — all while trying not to impulsively check my email. Then Maddie came joyfully bounding into the lake where we were swimming. Her uninhibited delight interrupted everything, including my mind scroll. Her play drew us all in. 

I love the infectious nature of playful joy, how it can spread from a dog at the lake to a vacationing family, through the pews of a church holding their annual talent(less) show or through a stadium full of people at a Taylor Swift concert (yes, I’m a Swiftie, don’t judge). Play is at its best in community. Joy is most meaningful when it can be shared — it’s why every child shouts “Look!” to their parents when they discover something new and exciting.

In this issue you’ll read how a few of our contributors turned to play as a way to avoid or recover from burnout. In their book, “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle,” Emily and Amelia Nagoski advise that avoiding burnout doesn’t just mean relieving your stressors. You have to also address the stress that remains in your body until you “complete the cycle” or follow a heightened emotion to its end and do something to signal to your body that you are safe — the lion is no longer chasing you, the interview is over, the conflict at work has been addressed. The Nagoskis name laughter as one of the most effective ways to complete the stress cycle. Not just any little chuckle will do, though. Big belly laughs – deep, uncontrolled, helpless laughter – are what release us from our stress.

There are serious issues facing the church and the world today. There is difficult and stressful work to be done. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t renew ourselves with laughter, or pause to play. In fact, if we do, we’ll not only renew ourselves but those who play with us. Like a dog leaping in a lake, our play could serve as the surprise blessing we didn’t know we needed.