In my last blog post, I wrote about activism as self-care…..which for me is the easy part….doing. But as I am learning, self-care should also include adequate rest and play. Play isn’t something that comes to me naturally as a more Type A personality, and play was not modeled or encouraged in my home growing up. 

Child on a swing
Source – Miles Tan, Unsplash

I have been ruminating about play and rest and writing this blog post for months. These topics kept coming up in multiple podcasts that I listened to in 2021, indicating to me that perhaps I should pay attention. Last year was the 10-year anniversary of Brené Brown’s transformative book, The Gifts of Imperfection. As part of the anniversary celebration, an updated version of the book was released, and Brené did a 6-part series with her sisters, Ashley and Barrett, on her podcast, Unlocking Us. Part 5 of 6 of the Podcast Series was on Guidepost #7 from the book, Titled, Cultivating Play and Rest. Additionally last year, two other podcasts from We Can Do Hard Things, created by Glennon Doyle, and her sister, Amanda, also encouraged me to dig deeper into this topic. These podcasts are, Fun: What the hell is it and why do we need it? and Self-Care: How do we identify our real needs, finally

Brené’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection, presents 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living (I could write a post on each of them!). In the Introduction, Brené says, 

Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.

Am I worthy?

As I have shared in previous posts, I have an intense struggle with feeling that “I am enough”, and “I am worthy”. These feelings lead to unhealthy expectations of myself including doing way too much and not allowing myself time for rest and play. As activists, we will always go to bed with things that are undone because there is an ever-increasing list of problems in the world to address. While on some level I realize that it is utterly unrealistic to believe that I, as an individual, can ever do enough to fix the world’s problems…..I always feel like I should be able to do more. I’ve commiserated with enough folks to know that I am not alone in feeling this way.

Before I go further, I want to provide definitions of rest and play. For Brené, rest is simply sleep – making sure that we get enough sleep each night. For me, I also include things that recharge my batteries like reading great books, doing something creative, and my mindfulness and meditation practice. 

Play is defined by both Brené and Abby Wambaugh (Glennon’s wife) as something that we do that is purposeless – it is fun for fun’s sake – and we don’t have an end goal/result in mind other than having a great time. My response to that is YIKES! Doing something for no other reason than to have fun? Who has time for that?

As Brené says in her book, 

We’ve got so much to do and so little time that the idea of spending time doing anything unrelated to the to-do list actually creates stress. We convince ourselves that playing is a waste of precious time. We even convince ourselves that sleep is a terrible use of our time.” 

Exhaustion as status symbol

In our culture, exhaustion is a status symbol, and our productivity defines our self-worth. I have absolutely lived my life believing that! Instead of bragging about how much fun we had over the weekend to our colleagues on Monday mornings, many of us brag about how much we worked over the weekend. But it really isn’t bragging so much as the need to feel like we are pulling our own weight in a culture that continually asks for more and more. We do it to prove our worth to ourselves and others. 

For many of us, the idea that folks will view us as lazy is a huge shame trigger. I have spent my life attempting to keep anyone from ever thinking that I am lazy. Even when I do something just for fun, anxiety about what else I could/should be doing often kicks in and keeps me from fully enjoying the activity. 

In the process of pondering how to cultivate more rest and play into my life, Brené did a couple of podcasts with Karen Walrond, the author of The Lightmaker’s Manifesto. I read the book and also went back to the chapter on Cultivating Play and Rest in Brené’s, Gifts of Imperfection.

Both of these women reference Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play and the author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Stuart believed “that play could be the key to discovering the giftedness that is in everyone,” so he set out to develop a scientific and evidenced-based study of play to better understand the importance of play and how to help humans improve their play.

The opposite of play is not work

One of the important facts that Stuart wants people to understand is that: 

…the opposite of play is not work; it is depression. A life or a culture devoid of or deficient in play exists as a heightened major public health risk factor. The prevalence of depression, stress-related diseases, interpersonal violence, addictions, and other health and well-being problems can be linked, like a deficiency disease, to the prolonged deprivation of play.” 

No wonder so many of us are worn down and depressed. Play is vitally important to our health like sufficient rest, a healthy diet, and exercise. How many of us struggle with or know activists who struggle with chronic health issues? I imagine the answer is nearly 100% of us.

Yet, there are more benefits to play than just better health!

Brené, citing Stuart’s work says, “Play helps us foster empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups and is at the core of creativity and innovation. Play is an important pillar of living a wholehearted life.” Empathy, navigating complex social groups, and creativity and innovation are qualities that effective activists need to have in abundance. 

In the Lightmaker’s Manifesto, Karen brings the subject of play directly into activism. She says, “this [activism] is all very serious business. How could any book about activism even entertain the idea of play? And how could we possibly incorporate play into advocacy?” I imagine a lot of us might agree with that last question…..I definitely did before I started looking further into the idea of play. 

Graphic of a group of people with blank protest signs
Source: AnnaliseArt, Pixabay

How could advocacy feel like play?

Karen moves on to dialog about finding “the activities that bring you joy no matter what the circumstance”…and “then making a commitment to do these things as often as possible whether in your career or in your activism.”

By doing this she says, “your activism may naturally lead to joy.”

Karen calls the activities that bring us joy our “light words.” Her “light words” are “speak, write, and shoot” (public speaking, writing books and blog posts, and photography). She has found a way to incorporate these three things into her work which is entwined with her advocacy. Because she focuses on her “light words” in her advocacy, Karen says her advocacy often feels like play. How does one go about figuring out their “light words?” Karen has us covered! At the back of the book, she has created a “Lightmaker’s Manual” with “journal prompts, templates, and exercises for cultivating a joyful, light-filled advocacy practice.” 

A paradigm shift

For me, it is a radical paradigm shift to understand that in order to be an effective activist, finding time for “play” is absolutely essential. It isn’t lazy to play and get enough rest, it is the only sustainable way to live. Although I am still working through the Lightmaker’s Manual, I feel like I am on the path towards shifting my paradigm of feeling lazy and unworthy when I allow myself time for adequate rest and play. 

I haven’t yet settled on my “light words,” but I will be sharing more as my journey towards embracing more rest, play, and joy unfolds in my life.

Anne Melia

Anne Melia is an environmental and political activist, currently knocking on doors and having as many awesome conversations as possible in advance of the August primary and November general election in Kansas. She is on a journey to re-evaluate her life goals and actions towards a path of deeper self-discovery and increased environmental and social activism. "The challenges of 2020 crystallized in my mind both the desire to become more actively involved in efforts to address climate change and social equity issues, but also the need for a nurturing community to provide safety and respite. Through the Resilient Activist, I have found opportunities for activism as well as connectedness and community. I am excited for the opportunity to join with Sami and others to further the vision and mission of the organization."