When Life Gets a Timeout

Most of us respond well to limits. For some of us, limits offer a comfort zone, a soft spot within which to perform the functions of living. Others of us like limits just for the sake of being able to push them. They give us something outside of which to operate. Either way, humankind has established and adapted to a set of boundaries complete with a system of reward and punishment, and with only an occasional rejection, we all tacitly agree to it.

We begin the institution of our system early in life. We learn that good behavior gets a gold star, while bad behavior gets a note home to the parents. But sometimes the system doesn’t make sense. Sometimes the system doesn’t translate well across the process of aging. These are the moments when adulthood becomes questionable, and we find ourselves feeling like the butt of a cosmic joke.

In elementary school, children receive recess or playtime when they’re well-behaved. I can’t help wondering why we reserve the luxury of recess for children. It seems rather cruel, does it not, to introduce our young people to routines like recess and naptime only to yank them away upon initiation to adulthood. Why is it that only children are allowed their playgrounds? As adults, we are forced into the world with no hope for recess and, for most of us, no clue what we would do with one if we had it. As children we are allowed a certain amount of time each day to get “it” out of our systems. We have our favorite equipment, our favorite games, our favorite playmates. We have a safe place to work out our aggression, a soft patch of mulch on which to land when the going gets tough and the tough fall down. But the older we get, the less entitled to this break we become. Why is it that we feel the need, as adults, to strip ourselves of the luxury of recess at a time when it seems the most relevant?

I suppose the argument might be made that the world is an adult’s playground. We are rewarded when we follow the rules, complete the assignments, and we’re punished with pay cuts when we don’t. We have our favorite vacation spots, our favorite hobbies, our favorite people. But if that’s true, and the world really is our playground, then Life becomes the bully who pushes us down the slide or pantses us while we’re swinging from the monkey bars. Suddenly, in that moment, we realize that there is no soft patch of mulch, and the best we can hope for is that the swings don’t have puddles underneath them. Somehow, by accepting the possibility of reward, we create a concept of recess that is more to be feared than relished. Perhaps this is why so many of us are willing to relinquish the privilege altogether.

It’s easy to get caught up in the way Life mistreats us. It’s easy to succumb to our role as Life’s plaything and do everything in our power to avoid it, but sometimes, just when we feel like giving up, like maybe spending recess in the library might be the better alternative, Life gets a timeout.

These timeouts are small, barely recognizable blips on the radar of ways we, the peons of the playground, have been wronged. But we don’t really want Life to start ignoring us altogether, so we take them when we can get them. Keep a count. Tally them up. Think of them as figurative moments of recess. There are more of them than we realize. They come when we’re standing in the checkout with one item and the person in front of us says, “Go ahead.” They come when we see “Just Married” painted on the back of a car driving down the Interstate and break out in a collective, “Aww.” They come when someone allows us to cross the street outside the crosswalk when it’s pouring rain. These tiny timeouts, while they do not constitute the same relief we might get from recess, serve to remind us that we are not in this alone, that Life gets to everyone at some point, that we need each other.

So maybe as adults we don’t have the luxury of a full-blown recess. Maybe we do allow Life the Bully too much power over our state of mind, and maybe we don’t have the time, space, or energy to indulge in taking care of ourselves the way we should. Maybe instead we get brief recessive moments, little reminders that we can’t play dodgeball alone.

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