Working in a Bit of Play

“Killer whales ‘neurotic’ in captivity,” the headline read.

No kidding.

Its reference to the recent deadly attack at SeaWorld in Florida underscored the larger point that animals (and plants) function best in their natural environment.

Self-improvement gurus like to say that we don’t reach our true potential unless we push ourselves beyond our comfort zone. But taking a plunge is different from continually treading water when our feet are meant to be on the ground.

In this downsized era, with so many of us barely keeping our chins above water, we’re all a little stir-crazy. As some financial experts have warned, overzealous job cutting can actually damage our economy — and our psyche.

How many of us feel as though we’ve been put through the paper shredder — sliced vertically, horizontally, and diagonally by competing demands? Who can blame us if we retreat to shelters of our own making? But retreat seems so regressive and, well, un-American. To paraphrase a motivational speaker: When life is humming along, the powerful easily edge out the competition in a straightaway. It’s in the curves that the truly talented drivers take the lead. This is no time to hunker down.

We might take a cue from children and spend some time in the playful lane. Instead of being whales in captivity, we need to range free.
In the days when the workplace allowed more room for fun, a group of veteran Detroit News reporters, who specialized in mischief at the back of the office in what was called “writers row,” liked to do a little “orange bowling” after lunch. The game amounted to rolling an orange up the aisle to see who could get the fruit closest to the operator’s stand.

That bit of office delinquency kept them loose so that when they settled back into work with their telephones, notebooks, and pens, they were among the most productive and, not surprisingly, colorful writers on the staff. Shenanigans generate the kind of playful sense that helped make America a nation of new ideas. When we’re pushed too far from our natural condition, brain output slows to a trickle.

What to do when we feel as though we’re squeezed in a vise? Exercise a little defiance. Color outside the lines. And, as this month’s fashion feature suggests, mix and match (even clash) with abandon.

If we can’t realistically indulge in child’s play, on or off the job, we can buy a ticket to the next best thing — watching grown men compete in our national pastime.

It’s the season for appreciating something as basic to human nature as trying to bat a ball into the sky while the ground remains securely beneath our feet.

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