For many years, there was a theory that play was an effective tool for learning for mammals because it was merely practice. The theory was that kittens practice play fighting because they are preparing for actual fighting or learning to catch prey. Or that young primates practiced caring for younger siblings as a way to learn child-rearing. But the people who researched play discovered that there was something bigger going on besides mere practice. Play fighting, as it turned out, was entirely different than actual fighting. Play fighting is reciprocal, and mammals that play fight go for different parts of the body than an animal would in actual attack. The researchers discovered that when juvenile animals were prohibited from playing—they were fearful and anxious of everyday activities. They were even fearful and anxious of social interactions. It turns out that play is about coming in to contact with the unknown. Play is not the practice of activity—play is the practice of being brave—of mastering the fear of whatever you are practicing. If play is a practice for anything—play is a practice of courage, of meeting what is unexplored, and learning to dance with it.
A few weeks ago I headed out to my alma mater to do some writing for the weekend. I was struggling with a section of a book, and decided some space away, in the company of students might inspire me to work through the challenge. But I didn’t get my best lesson that weekend in that beautiful library. Instead, my real learning came in the student center.
This past fall I had met a group of current students at a crew reunion, and they walked in to the student center the first night I was eating dinner and we greeted each other again—and then they joined me for dinner. When I asked what they were up to for the weekend, two of them offered that they were in an Acapella performance the next night and encouraged me to come, “We’ll save you a seat!” And so I showed up the next night, glad of something to look forward to, but thinking it was just going to be a lovely evening of entertainment—and not the education—and gift-- it turned out to be.
Their performance had a rhythm. One of the group members would come forward and introduce a fellow singer, and then that singer would sing a solo. And as they each began their solo, they would begin tentatively, their voice a bit softer, a bit timid. They looked somewhat surprised by their own voices, and as they kept singing they would soon hit a place in the song that seemed to feel like home, where they suddenly became bigger than themselves---where it seemed that light literally shined out of them.
And the moment they found their voice, the voice that was unmistakably theirs—they not only shined—the entire audience shined too. That moment was electric. And it happened in every single performance. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later—but in each song, the performer would find her voice—find that part of herself that was connected to everything—the song, herself, the audience.
It was a reminder that finding your voice isn’t a matter, really, as I had always thought—of knowing what you believe or knowing what you want. Though there is an element of that at times. Marianne Williamson famously said that “It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” And in watching each of these performers, this dynamic was perfectly visible. It wasn’t that they couldn’t find their voice, it’s that when it first showed up, they were frightened by it. They kept their distance from it—inching toward it slowly. And somewhere along the way, they found their courage, they lost their fear and connected with the voice that was truly theirs.
The beauty of this particular concert was that I got a chance to watch, and learn, this lesson over 20 times. It was true of every performer, and it never got less beautiful, and their connection with their voice, less perfect. And it was perhaps the richest reminder of what is missing when we are trying to do anything new, or anything that is important to us.
I sat stunned during the concert at the beautiful simplicity of being brave in the face of fear and awkwardness. Of trusting yourself to lean on your own passion and the group of people singing with you, and to keep going. Stepping off some wonderful edge and finding that your wings not only held—they were amazing. I sat there wishing that I could hold on to the sense of wonder, and goosebumps and awe that I had each time these women did it—became the biggest and most beautiful versions of themselves. It’s so hard to hard to remember that you have to risk it—risk meeting your voice, yourself, your light. It’s not so much about finding your voice—it’s more about being able to stay brave when you meet it.
And now it’s the season of New Year’s resolutions and year-plans and plans to change our behavior or goals—most often based on what we perceive to be our flaws or the things that we don’t like. But after watching this concert, I am convinced that Williamson was right—it’s our light where our biggest challenge is—not our flaws. So instead of a long list of goals and resolutions—let’s all step off the edge of our nests, with our voice, with our practices. Be brave with your off-key notes, and messy drafts and bumpy meetings. Speak up, speak out and leap from the nest that you know as familiar. Meet your voice, meet your light and stay. Stay and ride the waves. Let the wind push you, grab you and trust your wings. You will fly, you will shine, and because of it, we all shine.
© 2017 Gretchen l. Schmelzer, PhD