Exactly 9 years ago TODAY, a blood vessel burst in my thalamus, and I had a stroke. It took a while for my mind to knit itself back together, untangle what had happened to me, and grasp what was next.. I needed to learn to talk again, walk again, and learn to draw again.. then pull myself out of a pit of medical debt. This was a lot to process.. I tried to imagine where I’d be in a year’s time, and pictured that by December 2013 I’d be approximately where I am today in December 2021 – a clumsily functioning mess, still struggling to recover – I honestly imagined that many years of real-world progress would take ONE year.
To be fair to that naive me, I had a swollen brain and major cognitive impairment back then, but more than that, measuring & predicting such things is truly difficult, even for people with fully functioning brains who do it for a living. With still-clumsy speaking apparatus, I constantly asked my medical carers; ‘Will I walk again?’ ‘Will I ever draw again?’ but they went into guru-mode, answering my direct questions with Jedi hand-waves & vague koans that were all variations on; ‘Let’s see, shall we..’ though frustrating at the time, I now understand the wisdom of their answers.
We live in a cost/benefit focussed society, where goals have a schedule & budget baked in. Always. Whether in our professional or personal lives, an end goal and expenditure of time/effort/resources are constantly in mind. It’s how we measure ‘success’ or ‘failure’ in a work project, or a family holiday, and even how we decide if something is worth doing. Or not. It is rare to enter into something that requires any effort, with no idea of how much effort is required, or what the outcome should look like.
Measuring with the goal-oriented yardstick I held in 2012/13, my post-stroke progress has been a miserable failure. After 9 years of physical therapy, I still awkwardly lurch around like a drunk zombie busting for a pee, and still cannot do anything useful with my spazzy right T-Rex arm. If the 2012 me could have looked into the future and seen the return on his cost/benefit investment, he may have opted out on the spot.. and I’d be much worse off today.
Which explains why my physical therapy team were vague when answering my questions all those years ago. It isn’t only that predicting such things is difficult (and it is) but that doing so is actually limiting. They knew I might not get to where I wanted to be, but also knew that if I became daunted and didn’t even try, I’d atrophy and regress. Actively grappling with my situation would bring a better outcome than giving up and feeling sorry for myself. Having clear goals in mind motivates us to begin but can rob us of joy when we miss that target, and feel a sense of failure despite having achieved something ELSE.
Most things of true value in a human life are leaps of faith – in others or ourselves – and can’t be achieved by thinking like an accountant, weighing costs/benefits. Sometimes, we need to adjust our goals or forgo them completely, while still actively engaging with our lives. This involved curiosity is the important part. Much of supreme personal value in my own life has grown from a doodle, an exploration, or an open-ended meandering wander that started with no map, and had no destination in mind.. PLAY. That word has a frivolous meaning for some, but to me it is a profound concept, and where many things of personal importance have been born.
The POP of a blood vessel in my head reduced me to the helplessness of a baby in what felt like the body of a 98 year old man. In the process of rebuilding my life, I was reminded that play was an important part of learning to be a human in the first place, and certainly 100% of why & how I learned to draw, which has been threaded through my life ever since. As a child, I had no reasonable expectations of what came later, but drew anyway, just for its own sake and nothing else. That same approach helps me now, and not just with learning to draw again.
Play dwells on the personal. It frees us from constantly measuring & comparing our own lives – chasing goals, chasing approval, chasing numbers, chasing awards, dollars, or ‘likes’.. An achievement that has meaning for you is still worthwhile, even if it isn’t objectively impressive and nobody else cares about it. Marvels might happen when we dive into our own lives in a spirit of wonder. With no clear idea of a return on our ‘costs’ and what the ‘benefits’ might be, beyond curiosity itself. Living in a spirit of PLAY, we must be brave, open hearted, forgiving and generous, both with others and ourselves – unclear on outcomes, but whole heartedly trying anyway.
‘Let’s see, shall we!’