As 2018 draws to a close we are usually inundated with end-of-year top “whatever” lists; movies, news stories, or viral videos. For me personally, 2018 will go down as one of the top 5 most challenging years of my life. This year my mental and physical capacities were taken to the edge of reason, I tested my limits in nearly every way, and I questioned the ethos of humankind (if you are reading this, you know who you are). Yet, I am approaching 2019 with abounding gratitude, hope, and an energy that is strangely and acutely exciting.
My seven-year-old son has reached the age where he has taken an interest in board games. For now, I will revel in this phase of dice, checkers, game pieces, and playing cards…the calm before the PlayStation storm. Although he is learning many of these games for the first time in his life, he wants to win his first time through the gate. Many of these games are strategic and require more than just luck; they require a practiced skill. Today I attempted to teach him Chinese Checkers, which is one of my childhood favorites. During our first game, as our pawns were marching across the game board, he became upset and buried his head in his hands when he presumed a loss was imminent (I play to win folks). The game was long from being over, but he dramatically folded and conceded his loss.
The typical conversation ensued; “Babe, this is the first time you are ever playing this game. This is the time to understand the game and practice.” “I know it is difficult to lose, but you can learn from it too.” But, his seven-year-old mind was laser focused on a win and his disappointment put him in shutdown mode. As I sat at the table with my son, I thought about how much I practiced playing these games over and over for hours, learning strategy, rules, and the nuances of each game. I want to teach him to recognize his missteps as mistakes, celebrate them, and to indulge in the opportunity to learn.
So, if we need to practice our skills for things like board games, sports, cooking, crafting, or a new job, why aren’t we practicing life? Why do I expect to do life right the first time, without practice, and bury my head at the first sign of a “loss?” A mistake, misstep, or life challenge can send us into our loser’s corner and we create a narrative that tethers us without the kindness to explore or availability to learn. And how many times have we given up or didn’t even make it to the starting gate because we were sure we were going to lose? What if we considered life as a game that required intense practice – the rehearsing, honing, and experimentation of skills, thoughts, values, and beliefs.
If we allow ourselves the grace to practice life then we can extend empathy to others who are also practicing their skills. I think we can find forgiveness in this space; with an understanding that others might not get it right the first time either. We must also allow our children the opportunity to practice life too. We should give children the allowance to “try-on” different ideas, make mistakes, and endeavor to learn. I think it is an essential tool in building resilient and self-compassionate souls. As a therapist for children both neuro-typical and neuro-different, I must first teach the “name of the game” by laying out the expectations, components to learning, and the skills of being an effective and successful player. Then I provide a freedom to practice their budding abilities with careful mentorship.
As I perform my own year-in-review I am reminded of moments that challenged my knowledge to act in the face of unfamiliar adversity. By approaching these hurdles with an awareness that this was my first time playing this “game,” I took comfort in knowing that I am still practicing life. Motherhood, for example, is a game I will be practicing for life.
Now, let me emphasize this one simple fact – I am cynical. I am snarky. Sarcasm is my second language. In our house we are not joined around the table, hands clasped, singing kumbaya. I did not get here overnight, nor have I reached expert levels. I still have to mindfully, and at times, forcibly drag myself to the players circle and practice gratitude, self-compassion, and play on even when defeat is imminent. Life is practiced. #Practice life.