I learned this by having children: risk is what makes things fun. Playgrounds are fun because that’s where we can play with gravity within a limited degree of risk.
Normally, we enjoy playgrounds because we know they will have slightly risky equipment–things our Moms don’t let us do or play with inside the house–but the risks are generally known. Sure, we might hurt our head running under an overhang or scrape our hands and knees when falling off a swing. We have a good sense of these risks after a few times at the playground and we implicitly agree to them when we arrive to play.
Most years are like most visits to the playground: kind of predictable and generally fun. We get to play with our friends while experiencing some thrills and some spills. Maybe we conquer the monkey bars or learn to pump a swing on our own. Maybe we drop our snack in the dirt or maybe someone overtakes the lookout station when it isn’t their turn. But, overall, playgrounds are a good time.
2020 was none of that. You’ve probably seen this meme that circulated through social media in the spring. It was funny back then because 2020 brought us such sudden and unpleasant surprises, like this poor kid who comes out of the tunnel to discover that a giant cheese grater has been Photoshopped onto the slide but he has no way to control his imminent arrival at the first row of sharp holes. By December, though, it’s not funny anymore. We are completely shredded and very, very lucky to be alive.
2020 didn’t play by the playground rules at all and it wasn’t a predictable level of risk; it was grave danger roaming unfettered and spreading unchecked, so the playground got shut down–literally and figuratively. On top of that there was deep grieving and social unrest due to systemic racism and racially motivated violence. To finish things off, there was a polarizing election and the pandemic’s resurgence. The pattern is basically right there in the cheese grater.
What will the tunnel slide of 2021 hold for us? The illusion is gone. Like a generation that has never known the horrors of war but now knows that life can turn on a dime for the entire globe, we look ahead with little trust in the predictability of risk. Gravity won this year, but it doesn’t have to win next year, too. We are looking forward to shots at the doctor’s office like never before. We are beginning to return to the open sections of the playground with hand wipes and face masks, with all manner of screens between us and our friends, but we know the playground rules will probably never be exactly the same again.
Here’s what remains constant: play nicely with others. We can go to the lookout station when it is our turn and then step aside to make extra room for the next person. We can give encouragement to the person who grips the top of the fireman pole with shaking hands and we can share our snacks when it is safe to do so. We can continue to play, remembering that, even though gravity can be an unforgiving force, we can choose not to be forceful and unforgiving with each other.
Having been lucky enough to be here at the end of this year, we can look around to see who else is still here and what their needs might be. Maybe we can make friends with someone different than we are and help each other to heal. Whatever we do, let’s bring humanity back to the playground by looking out for each other and lending a hand.
Ready? Meet you at the bottom of the slide.