Playfulness as an Antidote to Anxiety

(Editor’s Note: We are doing a seven-part series on Lenten Practices in an Age of Anxiety, which will run every Wednesday; this is the third article of the series and you can find the earlier entries here, by MaryKate Morse, and here, by Andrew Arndt. May this series help you enter more intentionally and thoughtfully into your Lenten journey.)

“In periods of intense anxiety, what is most needed is what is most unavailable—the capacity to be imaginative.”
Peter Steinke

We have no shortage of opportunities to be anxious—about health, politics, finances, family, church, injustice, work, everything.

It seems that we have three options for how to deal with anxieties:

  1. Numb: Get on Netflix (or any manner of addictive distractions) to avoid anxiety.
  2. Succumb: Be present to our anxieties to the point of despair.
  3. Overcome: Confront our anxieties to the point of obsessively trying to fix everything.

But in any of these states, we often shut off the imaginative, warm, playful, nurturing parts of ourselves. Family systems expert Peter Steinke writes, “Automatic processes take charge: impulse overwhelms intention, instinct sweeps aside imagination, reflexive behavior closes off reflective thought, defensive postures block out defined positions, emotional reactivity limits clearly determined direction.” In anxiety, it’s easy to function in survival mode.

This way of functioning doesn’t leave much room for a greater force at work. So I’d like to propose a fourth option—play.

This is not the kind of play that avoids sources of anxiety or trivializes them. This is the play that is possible when we’ve dealt with our responsibilities to the extent of our capacity and, having found ourselves inadequate to resolve every issue, chosen to do what we used to do as kids—trust that someone else has ultimate responsibility.

I’m in many intense conversations with earnest Christians, talking about important issues and how we can resolve them. We do have agency and responsibility. But at some point we have to say, “No matter how much we work and talk, we can’t solve this. I don’t know about you but I’m exhausted by all the work and talk. Let’s go play and trust God is holding the world. That he cares more than we do about all these issues and at the same time, he’s not wringing his hands.”

Lent invites us to remember we are dust. That is a sobering reality. It’s humbling to remember we are not God, and at the same time, it’s freeing. We are not God! We can rest and play and leave it to him to run the world. Lent invites us to remember we are dust. That is a sobering reality. It’s humbling to remember we are not God, and at the same time, it’s freeing. Click To Tweet

A New Way of Seeing

So one thing I’ve been finding especially meaningful as we prepare for Lent is the practice of making hundreds of paper butterflies (not officially origami since they involve a cut to the paper, but origami-like). When my heart is heavy or my mind is overloaded or my body is tired (or often all three), I gather my little stack of colored papers, some scissors and twine and carefully fold.

Folks at my church have become accustomed to watching their lead pastor in meetings, slowly creating a colorful pile of butterflies. Many times they join in the folding. It releases me from my anxious fixing, opens my heart to prayer, helps my mind to imagine again. It’s deeply restful and even fun. And it reminds me that the God of the universe who holds all the things that are breaking my heart is somehow able to have joy. Somehow in all his concern for the things that make us anxious, he is rejoicing as he makes all things new.

As Thomas Merton puts it in New Seeds of Contemplation, “What is serious to [humans] is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as ‘play’ is perhaps what he Himself takes most seriously.” Not only will our play let us rest from our troubles for a while, when we return to them, we may actually return with a new way of seeing—a way that imagines we’re not in this alone.

The anxieties of life make us feel forever in a mess, always in turmoil. It’s hard to imagine how the good news of Easter is meaningful when all we seem to experience is upheaval. Maybe the ongoing upheaval is a place where the resurrection of Jesus can bring real hope. It’s hard to imagine how the good news of Easter is meaningful when all we seem to experience is upheaval. Maybe the ongoing upheaval is a place where the resurrection of Jesus can bring real hope. Click To Tweet

If we only understand Jesus’ story in relation to his physical death, we lose the many ways his story relates to our lives. There were many deaths Jesus suffered before he ever got to the cross: dying to comfort, convenience, social acceptance, relational peace/understanding, existential equilibrium. Just Matthew 26 alone tells many stories of various kinds of death—threats of danger, plots, denials, betrayals, the existential angst at Gethsemane, his arrest and trial. Although we’re not all facing physical death, we are presented daily with opportunities to die to the very same temptations of comfort, convenience, social acceptance, relational peace, and existential equilibrium.

Richard Rohr describes this process of transformation as order, disorder, reorder. It’s tempting to imagine that disorder is a sign that we’ve done something wrong, that God has forsaken us but it’s an essential part of transformation. So here’s where the butterflies come in. In addition to the calming effect of making these bright, paper butterflies, we have also folded them flat and wrapped them in dull cocoons made of bandages. This Lent my community will be exploring this path of transformation through the life of the butterfly.

Order, disorder, reorder. Caterpillar, cocoon, butterfly. Inside a cocoon, a caterpillar doesn’t just grow legs and wings, it becomes an entirely new creation. The caterpillar actually digests itself, liquefying into a kind of “soup.” Certain cells survive, turning the “soup” into eyes, wings, antennae, and other adult structures.

This kind of transformation that feels like it will destroy us is exactly the kind that Jesus invites us into. Not for the sake of pain but for the sake of transformation. So this Lent we have hung hundreds of these tiny cocoons all over our church building, wrapped in bandages—lifeless and colorless. Tiny reminders of death and tiny invitations to imagine something alive inside. Then, on Easter Sunday we’ll invite worshipers to unwrap the tiny cocoon shrouds to discover paper butterflies inside. This kind of transformation that feels like it will destroy us is exactly the kind that Jesus invites us into. Click To Tweet

A Strange Invitation

Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto” includes the lines:

Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

What a strange invitation—put our ear close to decaying bodies of carrion to hear the songs to come. I wonder if there are also songs to be heard if we put our ear to a cocoon, if “caterpillar soup” sings a song of butterflies yet unseen. If everything that makes us anxious is a sign only of destruction we have good reason to be anxious. But if what looks like death and disorder is a sign of new life forming, there may be much more to celebrate than we initially assume.

Instructions to share this Lenten experiment with your family or community:

1. First we made these paper butterflies.

2. Then instead of opening their wings, we kept them folded flat and wrapped them in 1/2 inch strips of muslin.

We have hung these all over the church during Lent, and we’ll invite worshipers to consider what feels like death, accompanied by these signs, one building on the theme of death, the other on the theme of transformation:

  • During the season of Lent followers of Jesus are invited to reflect on life and death. Whether or not you follow Jesus, we invite you to use these cocoons as a way to reflect. While a cocoon doesn’t look very alive, something transformative is taking place. What if there is transformation at work in things that seem hopeless and lifeless? Watch for Easter (April 12) when we get to see what’s inside!
  • A butterfly is not just a caterpillar with legs and wings. It’s an entirely different creature.A caterpillar dissolves into a kind of soup, from which cells survive to form the adult structures of the butterfly. What if the things that seem to be dissolving you are actually transforming you? Richard Rohr says that the process of transformation goes: Order, Disorder, Reorder. (Caterpillar, Cocoon, Butterfly). Where are you in the process of transformation? Watch for Easter (April 12) when we get to see what these cocoons are becoming!

3. Then on Easter Sunday, we’ll unwrap the “bandages” to discover the color that had been hiding in the cocoons:



If you try this experiment in your own faith community, please let me know how it goes!

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