In all of its variations
Spend some time with little people, and by that I mean anyone not yet jaded by the goings on of the cold hard world, and you’ll find the word “pretend” slipping into your vocabulary.
It goes something like this:
“Pretend the rug is hot lava and you have to walk home from school across the living room.”
Or: “Dad, pretend you are a dog pulling on this towel. I’ll pull on the other side and you pretend to bark. And I’ll say, ‘It’s OK, sweetie, it’s just a game.’”
So now, you’re in a game, in a game, and starting to wonder what you’re supposed to do.
Then the game can turn on itself: “Pretend I am the daddy, and you are the little girl, and I give you a timeout because you stepped in the lava.”
Pretend can pretty much take you anywhere. The scenarios are endless and will be endless unless you pretend to be a parent and shut it down. To be honest, I tire of this particular domestic fun and game sooner than I probably should.
Part of that might have to do with the dynamic nature of the game. More than once I have gone to great lengths to, say, understand the geography of the lava field in our living room. Then I’ll make what I consider to be a heroic gymnastic move to avoid the lava, only to be told, in a dismissive tone that 4-year-olds are masters of, “Dad, that’s not lava anymore.”
It also occurs to me that these play-acting games often reflect in real-time my parenting skills, things I’ve said and done. Maybe it’s a child’s way of critiquing the parenting being offered up, the airing out the inconsistencies or miscues in word choice or tone. That can be a little unsettling.
My daughter’s obsession with pretend reminds me of my older kids who both had a rich collection of imaginary friends. I’ve written about this before, but, for young parents, imaginary friends can be terrifying. It’s easy to make the leap from idle play with imaginary friends to the thought that your child is hallucinating, or worse, has some sort of dissociative psychosis. From there it is just a hop, skip, and a jump to worrying that your child is an axe murderer. Such is the nervous world young parents live in.
Thankfully, I no longer live in that world. Long ago, a colleague and friend of my dad, a psychiatrist, reassured me that imaginary friends are good—totally normal and not to be worried about. I assume there is a statute of limitations on that bill of good health. I never did ask the psychiatrist about 30- or say, 60-year-olds with imaginary friends. That might be more worrisome.
What’s curious about the game of pretend is that it is almost exclusively the province of children. While a friend here or there will say, “Hey, Adam, pretend you’re not a dope,” the game usually ends there.
Adults just don’t engage in pretending like kids do. But maybe they should.
In one sense, pretending is a precursor to humility, which, I think, is the grease to a functioning society. By that, I mean to pretend is an effort to step into someone else’s shoes. On a basic level, it is to envision the world from a different perspective, someone else’s perspective. When that happens, understanding emerges, respect flourishes, and there is a lot more wiggle room in the social and political discourse.
When I was working on the rivers of California, Oregon, and Idaho, there was an expression about guides that we semi-jokingly modeled our behavior on: seldom right but never in doubt. That element of bravado was useful to a degree. Taking 23 strangers, usually from the city, into the wilderness for six days depended on building trust and confidence in your guests almost immediately. Our confidence was integral to that. However, the flip side of the motto was that it could lead you to become flip with others.
When we met our guests at the put-in, they would pile out of a school bus, excited, nervous, neatly adorned in new river gear—fleece, raincoats, hats—regardless of the weather. As guides, we always made split-second judgements about the people we were about to spend five nights and six days with. It was the curse of that bravado and not something I’m particularly proud of.
But after six days on a river, after some three odd decades of life on a river with strangers, you do learn some things about yourself, but more importantly about other people. One such thing is that you really don’t know who other people are or what their lives entail without a lot of effort and consideration. The picture is always more complex than at first glance.
One of our stops on a six-day Middle Fork of the Salmon River trip was a hike up to what is called Veil Cave. It is a several hundred-yard hike up a steep boulder field—boulders the size of small cars—then a trail to a remarkable and enormous cave somehow etched out of an even more enormous granite cliff. A veil of water flows over the face of the cave.
On a trip years ago, one of our guests was a gentleman with fairly advanced ALS. He expressed interest in seeing the cave. Another guide and I said, “No problem, we’ll get you up there.”
Again, unwarranted bravado.
I had been up to Veil Cave a bazillion times, leaping from boulder to boulder, racing up the trail mindlessly, effortlessly. I don’t really remember any of those hikes. What I do remember as clear as the water in that river is the struggle our guest with ALS experienced climbing up to the cave. I remember because for the first time—maybe in my lifetime—I felt real struggle in trying to get somewhere I wanted to get, felt frustration rising up in me like hot bile. Every step was a Herculean effort, every step questioning myself, “Should we just turn back? This is too much.”
How many steps did we take? It could have been a thousand, two thousand. It felt like ten thousand. So, I learned something about that man’s life, something that in a thousand years I wouldn’t have learned had I not almost literally walked in his shoes.
While pretending can be a journey in empathy, it can also be a vehicle for hope, seeing the world as you would like to see it. Certainly, children employ pretend games to work through mundane scenarios they experience daily. But they are also often posing the question, “What if?”
As an adult, it’s easy to be mocked for asking, “What if?” You’re naïve the realists will say. But the impulse is a good one. It’s one based in aspiration and optimism. Its foundation is in caring about a bigger picture, in estimating that the world is worth your energy and time. It’s looking forward with a long focus. Besides, what’s the alternative? To say, “What’s it matter?” and retreat into a quest to take care of your own? That’s a vision with a dead end.
Unfortunately, I don’t believe in a benevolent creator. Matter existed, always existed. Then evolution took over. And evolution does not have a preordained happy ending. It’s a purely objective force. With the animal kingdom, that resolves mostly by raw natural selection. Humans can and do put a wrinkle in things. Our ability to make choices with sweeping impact is a variable with exponential effects on the evolutionary equation.
What is also worth remembering is that evolution results in the survival of species not individuals. It is a filter for the collective not lone winners. What if we made decisions with that in mind? What if we broadened our goals a bit?
A game of pretend can remind one of the possibilities:
Pretend politicians acted with common sense and weren’t so selfish and punitive in their demeanor.
Pretend that the pot of gold was actually all around us, on this side of the rainbow.
Pretend that we lived off the land and sea and air didn’t have the option of bankrupting them.
Pretend that every lunatic with imaginary friends couldn’t shoot up a school yard with an AK-47.
Pretend we were as smart as our children.
Pretend what you will.