Monday, August 11, 2008

Too Important to Be Taken Seriously

Last week, as I wait outside my wife’s building to pick her up at the end of the day, I roll the windows down and let the beautiful day roll in. I hear people laugh but when I look around, see no one on the sidewalk. After about the third time, I step out of the car and see, high above me, two guys dangling from ropes holding five gallon buckets, washing windows as they slowly drop down the building’s side.

One seems focused on his work, but the other works faster, wiping two windows at a time, squeegee-ing them off and then kicking hard off the side of the building, releasing slack when about five feet off the side, rappelling down to the next level of windows. While he works, he also pauses and yells at his friend, even sings loud, mixing play with work while about halfway down a ten story building.

Seeing me look up, a couple other people do likewise, and we watch the guy laugh and mess around above us, dripping soapy water down when he kicks off and moves down. As I watch him have fun with his work, I wish for a second that it was me up there. Then I remember that he hangs by a thin rope, one slip away from falling as fast as the water he spills. As fun at it looks, it’s a high stakes game he’s playing, without a net.

But he makes it look so fun that the people outside the bank look up with envy, perhaps on their way back to their cubicles.

For me, it reminds me of what I read the night before and thus I’m not surprised that these guys laugh and seem to play while doing something deadly and unforgiving. Here’s what Laurence Gonzales writes about the way humor and play can help us make better decisions when we’re under severe stress:

Emotion is the source of both success and failure at selecting correct action at the crucial moment. To survive, you must develop secondary emotions that function in a strategic balance with reason. One way to promote that balance is humor.

Every pursuit has its own subculture, from hang gliders and steep creek boaters to cavers and mountain bikers. I love their dark and private humor, those ritual moments of homage to the organism, which return us to a protective state of cool. It unequivocally separates the living from the dead....

It sounds cruel, but survivors laugh and play, and even in the most horrible situations- perhaps especially in those situations- they continue to laugh and play. ... There is evidence that laughter can send chemical signals to actively inhibit the firing of nerves in the amygdala, thereby dampening fear.

Before I’d read this, this guy would have seemed crazy to me, but his play now made sense. He wasn’t failing to take his job seriously, he just realized that what he was doing was too important to be taken too seriously. Play not only makes it more fun, it also, ironically, made it more safe.

P.S.: Mark Bennett at Defending People blogged about Gonzales’ book long before I did. (Check out his posts here and here. ) I’m sure I read these posts, but didn’t put the source together until I heard Gonzales interviewed on NPR. Like GTD and Eckhart Tolle, I finally heard about these books so many times that I had to pick them up.

What do you read or do to stay fresh and stress-free?

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