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Where a Rat Can Be a Mouse

It's Pretend-You're-A-Kid Month! Why? Because I've noticed a heavy loneliness. It's particularly visible this time of year. I see depression and stress around me, in the news, among friends and colleagues. I feel it. And I have found something that helps. It's a thing I call "Pretend You're a Kid" - the embarrassing, wonderful practice that has been medicine for my emotional struggles and helped me figure out how to be an adult.

I work with children. I work very hard and it’s worth it. I learn from them. I learn the most from children. When they feel seen, safe, nourished and loved, they have answers to many of the psychological and emotional conundrums that affect us. These answers do not come in words, but in play.

Last night I listened to an interview with Joann Hari about anxiety/ depression and addiction. Hari referred to Bruce Alexander’s “Rat Park” experiments. In one, a solitary caged rat, when given a choice between water and a morphine cocktail, chose the drug repeatedly, to the exclusion of food and untampered water. Another experiment changed the circumstance of the rat’s life. A rat haven was constructed with access to games, food, sex and rat friends all running around in a kind of Chuck E Cheese’s, “Where a rat can be a mouse.” The same setup, a button for water and a button for water laced with morphine were installed. In this environment, the rats showed a statistically significant preference for plain water. The plain water was preferable so as not to disrupt normal social behavior. Here’s the paper: "The Myth of Induced Drug Addiction"

This is great news! (In a reductive and over-simplified way.) But it does help to illustrate the need for meaningful relationships and, I would argue, the resilience we can develop in a playful environment. We can make our own Chuck E Cheese’s with better pizza and not-so-creepy (unless that’s what we’re in to) mascots. Through connecting with our bodies and the people around us, there is hope for feeling good and relevant and as though you belong to something bigger. How do we do this? Look to the play professionals.

In a safe and supportive environment kids play well together, they adapt, they forgive, they problem solve much better than most grown-ups, especially with strangers. Why? Because the game is bigger than any individual and the game is too much fun to stop.

In his most recent book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari identifies irrelevance as the primary struggle humans face now. Whereas exploitation was once the principal concern, advances in technology, he explains, have made the larger workforce of people irrelevant. This is deeply psychological and incredibly difficult to combat in a culture where the acquisition of power and resource is still the internalized norm. "...humanity," he says, "is in a midlife crisis." (Interview with Harari)

The child within understands the environment differently. Jobs for the sake of jobs are not important. Roles, however, are filled with possibility. The child knows that every person is a story, a fellow explorer in this wild adventureland. The status of our electronic avatars does not matter. Experiences are real regardless of whether they are posted. The child pays attention to the immediacy of feeling and might be able to better tell when another needs help. It isn’t a game to be won, but an ongoing discovery that must continue to be interesting and joyful.

So try it! Play "Pretend-You’re-A-Kid" Month with me. Enjoy a sparkle picnic in your living room? Learn to juggle? Hunt for bugs? Dance on your bed? Read...for pleasure? Be brave. If you can’t find the time or see the value, know that this is good for you. Just a few moments in the day. Think of it like a shitty yoga pose - one that is awkward and uncomfortable at first, but strengthens muscles you didn’t even know you had.

If you need encouragement, call me! If you feel lost, I’m happy to rifle through my arsenal of puppets, bouncy balls, tutus, and insect figurines. More importantly, I’d love to listen. Playing doesn’t have to be so loud and playful. It can also be reflective and quiet.

Let’s make this second half of November childish! For a few moments every day, remember your five-year-old self. Reimagine your surroundings. Reach out, and if you feel inspired, send experiences, stories, pictures! I want to know how you changed your world by playing with it.

Before writing this morning, I sat down in the shower - I mean the waterfall, heated by blacksmith elves up river, cooling their fresh (and heavy) kaleidoscopes. I scrubbed myself with the rare loofah flower which smells of honey and hide-and-go-seek and is known to impart a subtle phosphorescence that glows when people laugh.

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