The Importance of Play (A Valentine for Marshall Rosenberg, part 2)

By John Kinyon

Another thing I learned from Marshall is how he would recommend doing things “only if they are play.” This lesson has taken on deeper meaning for me over the past few years. Marshall defined “play” as the things we truly choose to do—actions we take for their own sake, and not because we are afraid of the consequences or hoping for some kind of reward.

Sometimes, Marshall would quote Joseph Campbell’s prescription to “follow your bliss,” saying that this was at the core of all of humanity’s religions and wisdom traditions. He also used to conjure the image of a small child joyfully feeding a hungry duck. He described the delight of the child when the duck, in its humorous eagerness, accepted the child’s full-hearted offering. This image, to him, perfectly captured what it meant to “play,” or to contribute joyfully to life.

Whenever I heard Marshall talking about this, I would feel inspired and clear that this was exactly how I wanted to live my life. At the same time, another part of me would think, “Are you kidding me? There’s no way I can live that way.” It just didn’t feel possible.

As I look back over the years, I see how often I have not lived by the “play” principle. And why not? Because I found it absolutely terrifying. I was often too afraid of the consequences of not doing something I or others thought I should do. Or else I wanted the reward of what Marshall would call “buying another’s love.” When questioned about how difficult it was to build one’s “real life” (outside an NVC workshop) around a sense of “play,” Marshall would respond, “You need to be willing to be independently poor.” (As opposed to being independently wealthy.) He would also say that he would rather eat out of garbage cans than live his life doing what he should or had to do.

This kind of heroic courage is something I so admired in Marshall. From the time he first started developing NVC, he was willing to follow his bliss, his heart, no matter how low or bleak his financial situation got, or how challenging the obstacles. He would, in his words, “follow the energy”—the energy of where his passion led him and the energy of people who showed up in his life wanting what he had to offer. So many people kept supporting him and inviting him to travel to offer his work. By living his life that way, he created a tremendous legacy. Today there is a network of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people sharing NVC and an NVC-consciousness in ways that transform lives. This is thanks to Marshall’s contagious and committed spirit of “play.”

Read Part 1, “The Scary Honesty”.

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