As the oldest of three siblings with a single mother, I carried responsibility from an early age. I took care of my brother and sister, household chores and dinners, and somewhere along the way I also made it my job to keep everyone happy. (Ahem, I'm working on that). I learned that play came after work—if at all.
I also come from a working class family. My grandparents labored for a better life. So did my parents, who proudly taught us the importance of a strong work ethic—to work hard and take pride in a job well. Play was not a word we heard spoken much. (Except when the grownups wanted to get rid of us. Those were the days when they'd shoo us outdoors shortly after a bowl of Captain Crunch—"Go out and play!"—and not look for us again until the streetlights blinked on).
I think you're beginning to see a theme here. And it isn't just my family. Work is arguably our highest value here in the U.S. In this land of 60-hour work weeks (or more) and minimal if any vacation time, we live with the assumption that we all must. work. hard. We identify with our work; our careers are who we are. Time to play (freedom)? You earn that by working hard. (And then maybe you can cut down to 40 hours.)
I'm not saying that I'm a workaholic and it's all the fault of my family and my country. I'm just simply pointing out that when it comes to work, I've got that down. I know how to do that.
And my guess is that you know how to work hard, too.
What I don't do so well is play.
How about you?
It wasn't until I turned to art journaling that I realized I had a problem. As I began to seek out more time to play in my art journal, I instantly felt guilty. At first, it was it really hard to remove myself to a room, close the door and create when I knew there was so much other work to be done (there's always other work to be done).
Then, I learned to shift my priorities for the better and to spend more time playing in my art journal, I'm getting pretty good at leaving the dishes in the sink, living with dust bunnies and even saying no to people (I know, another issue I'm working on). Because I know when I play there, I'm growing and becoming more of who I am every day—and I know this powerful practice spills out into every other facet of my life.
Yet I still struggle. To this day, when I "play" in my art studio I often wrestle with guilt.
"You should be working," says my lizard brain, "and here you are in your studio—p l a y i n g."
This is kind of crazy on many levels, I know, and has so much to do with my background and my culture, all of which not only tells me to get to work but that fails to value art and creativity altogether.
I know I'm not alone. So many of us, especially those of us who grew up in western culture, carry these messages with us. And if we believe them, we do immeasurable harm to ourselves. So many people never connect with, let alone harness their creative potential (and we ALL have creative potential). And what happens?
We live our lives less than our full selves.
And here I'm going to get big picture for a moment: This is not just a personal problem. Human beings who lack connection to their creative selves make up a world of people who fail to create anything: not solutions and innovations in our chosen professions...not beauty...and surely not fulfilling lives, careers or communities.
A world that doesn't grow out of the constructive power of our human creativity will surely continue on its wreckless course of self destruction.
Yet we live in a world where too often creative play is not only less important than "real work", but even subversive. (That link is an article worth reading.)
One thing my art journal has taught me is this: despite the deep-rooted messages handed down to me and delivered daily from my Inner Critic, I know that creative play is critical to my well-being. And I'm here to point out that these "all-work-no-play-and-don't-get-all-artsy-on-me" messages are outright untruths.
We save our own lives and we save the world when we give ourselves permission to play in our art journals
(or anywhere else, creatively).