There is much fan-theory as to how the Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger, acquired his “smiling” scars. Even the Joker himself offered different renditions to the tale. Yet regardless of the how, it’s the why, as in the never-changing question he asked, “Why so serious?”
Chances are, you are quite serious. Understandably, many of you were taught the prerequisite for success begins with the acceptance to an internationally recognized preschool. Your parents didn’t think writing your Js backward was cute. They saw it as an impediment to an Ivy League education. For others of you, the pressure isn’t academic, it’s athletics. You were made to believe that every swing-and-a-miss in t-ball hurt your chances to go pro. So you studied, or you practiced. Or both. You previously enjoyed learning. You previously enjoyed sports. Now they are anxiety-inducing. Your play becomes no laughing matter. It’s why you’re so serious.
Tragically, you’ve rationalized this as normal behavior. It’s all part of “getting ahead”—you tell yourself—succumbing to the myth: if you work hard now, you can play later. And while there is truth in this axiom, what most fail to consider is the natural desire to increase one’s standard of living over time. Without recognition of this mindset and discipline, your “future-self” will not be satisfied living the same lifestyle as your “current-self” does—you’ll be “movin’ on up,” ditching the ramen noodles for extra guac at Chipotle.
It’s why comedian Jay Leno refused to acquire things until he “made it”—and this is long before we were convinced we needed things, you know, things that cost in excess of one thousand dollars that we use predominately for selfies. He knew if he could keep his costs low—even spending some nights sleeping in the alley—he could avoid having to endure random jobs to “pay the bills” that might prevent him from accepting a much-needed gig for exposure.
But most of us are not Jay Leno. If we’re honest, we’ve already chosen to accumulate stuff that either limits or overwhelms us: credit card debt, student loans, mortgage. We’re at the mercy of the lender. We worked hard. Bought more. Wanted to play. But had to work extra just to maintain our current lifestyle. It’s the cruel irony and vicious cycle of making just enough to buy a boat, but having to work another shift to keep it maintained and docked—never having time to cruise.
Here’s the real danger: enter the sea squirt. A tiny sea-dwelling creature that begins its life similar to a tadpole. Its little brain steers it toward nutrients, and away from danger, that is, until it attaches itself to a solid structure like a rock. It then transforms into a tubular type creature and digests its own brain. Yup. You read that correctly. The sea squirt is the poster-child for “Use it or lose it.”
Much like the sea squirt, if we don’t learn to press pause on our serious pursuits and revisit what it means to play, we too are destined for a similar fate. Serious will become our norm as we “digest” our ability to play. And that’s actually serious!
According to renowned play researcher, Jaak Panksepp, play “stimulates nerve growth in the amygdala (where the emotions get processed) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (where executive decisions are processed).”
This means play actually makes us smarter and strengthens our emotional intelligence, allowing us to become more adaptable. Play fosters empathy and is at the core of our creativity and innovation, noted author Stuart Brown, M.D.
To summarize Brown’s work, play is as important as sleep. The opposite of play is not work, it’s deprivation—which leads to a darkened mood, lost sense of optimism, and an inability to feel pleasure. In short: a life without play creates a negative loop where we find ourselves stuck in a dead-end job, overwhelmed by debt, or just plain struggling to get by—or as some say, “I can’t even.” 
Without play, our life becomes the embodiment of insanity: doing the same thing over and over—to get unstuck—and expecting different results, ultimately resulting right where the enemy wants us, isolated. This is why I believe God created and gifted us play: to recalibrate our humanity, to make sure nothing keeps us from neglecting meeting together, and to live connected with“ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Similar to Dr. Gary Chapman’s five love languages, the differing means by which we experience love, Brown outlines what might be considered the 8 play languages, noting it’s not necessarily the activity that instigates play, but the mindset. Here they are:
This person feels alive when engaged in nonsense, like practical jokes. (Side-note: this is one of mine since I often lie in wait to scare my co-workers.)
This person needs to move to think, maybe dance or gymnastics. For more, you can check out Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk about creativity.
This person thrives off discovery and new experiences, could be travel, but these people are also the ones that find hidden gems on Spotify.
This person loves to be number one—they turn everything into a competition. (Makes me think of Turk and J.D. from Scrubs.)
This person loves to have and to hold memorabilia and such. Or could be a car collection like Jay Leno (which he collected after he made it.)
This person finds joy in making things, everything from wood-working to sewing, and everything in between.
This person loves to dream and get lost in the emotions of a great tale. They are your playwrights, cartoonist, novelists, and screenwriters, etc. 
So here’s what I want you to do. To ensure you don’t get stuck (and alone like the Grinch) and that you’re able to continue being innovative, take calculated risks and live in your sweet spot, surrounded by your people, as you tackle the ambiguities of life. Take a few moments and explore the following:
- Identify your play language. This may be one or more, but name those activities that allow you to discard life’s constraints—feeling fully-alive, engaged in the “purest expression” of your humanity.
- Identify how your play brings glory to God. Take some time to read 1 Corinthians 10:23-32. Paul is instructing the Christians in Corinth how to essentially be social with the goal being to point others to Christ. He teaches them, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (verse 31). Remember, play increases our social IQ which puts us in proximity to people who don’t know Christ.
- Identify when you will play. If play is as important as sleep, we must treat it like any other vital obligation and insert it on the calendar. I’m serious. Before you click off this article, schedule a time to recalibrate your humanity.
Just as “to err is human,” so is to play. Growing older doesn’t mean to end play; just ask Peter from the 90s movie Hook; upon return as an adult from Neverland, Granny Wendy asked, “So, your adventures are over?” To which Peter responds, “Oh no. To live… to live would be an awfully big adventure.”
The only thing awfully “bigger” is to live, in a state of growth, for Christ—to experience life interdependent on God and His people, ready for the challenges ahead. And the only way to avoid suffering the same fate as the sea squirt is to include play as a part of your lifestyle. So go on: play, and stay out past when the street lights illuminate.