I grew up with the belief that spontaneity is an important element in a life well lived. It was part of my family’s impulsive sense of humor; it played itself out in the creative bedtime stories my mom wove during long summer nights, and it seemed to be the only guiding factor in our summer vacations in the countryside, where each day would slowly unwind with the promise of a new adventure under the California sun.
Yet spontaneity was a seasonal fruit, bountiful only in the summer months when my entire family was free. As mid August hit, it felt like the lazy afternoons were being reeled in on a spool of educational thread, binding us once again to the world of structure. When September arrived, not only did we kids have to go back to school, but our parents as well, one of whom was an elementary school librarian and the other a teacher.
In hindsight, I now realize those spontaneous summer days unconstrained by responsibility were a gift from my parents. While we were out playing Cowboys and Indians, they made sure there was food on the table and clean clothes in our closets, that the irrigation system was working correctly, that the checkbook was balanced and the summer budget on track. They drove us to the library or the beach when we wanted to go, and created all the routines that kept our household humming along while we children played.
Regardless of this adult realization, I still highly value the richness spontaneity brings to life. And that is the type of wealth I would like to instill in my child. But how do you teach spontaneity? Always, always in hindsight. Any other attempt is simply controlled spontaneity, which defies the very definition of the word.
And to plagiarise from the free online dictionary (http://www.thefreedictionary.com); Spontaneous: Happening or arising without apparent external cause; self-generated.
1. Arising from a natural inclination or impulse and not from external incitement or constraint. 2. Unconstrained and unstudied in manner or behavior. 3. Growing without cultivation or human labor.
If you read this definition as a parent, who does it characterize more? You, or your child? I’m guessing your child. Or an earlier, carefree version of yourself you tend to both admonish and admire. Sure, spontaneity can get you into trouble if embraced in the wrong way: giddily jumping off a cliff into a lake for example, going on impulse to bed with a total stranger, or suddenly telling your boss exactly what you think about him or her. But on the other hand, spontaneity connects you to the joy of life; choosing to embrace what you want right in this moment, as a child might do.
And this comes back to answering my own proposed question; my son takes the cake when it comes to spontaneity in every definition of the word. He has an idea and he embraces it. He feels happy and he expresses it through dance, spontaneous song, or silly antics. He wants to build the Eiffel tower and he builds it, molding whatever materials on hand into his desired outcome.
A family art project painfully elucidated an area in which I’ve lost my spontaneity. My son painted a train speeding happily over a bridge, water streaming beneath as the sun shone in the sky. His loose, broad swaths of paint seemed like strokes of genius next to my rigid tree with its evenly spaced fiery leaves. I’d like to think of myself as spontaneous in some way. I certainly give into impulse on occasion. But nothing too daring or scandalous. And there’s the question; Can we, as adults truly embrace spontaneity and also be responsible?
Sure. Within reason. An adventurous friend who I’ll simply call P is a school teacher here in the Hague, is happily married and has two children. She is meticulously responsible and goes above and beyond at work and in the home front. Yet, she admits that she has a fantasy of living the carefree life of her college days with just enough money in her pocket to buy Bruce Springsteen tickets and follow him around the world on tour. In other words, she longs to live life in an unconstrained manner, free of responsibility or worries–be in the moment.
But P doesn’t just admit to the fantasy; she lives it. Every chance she gets, she buys concert tickets and follows Bruce on his European tours, coming home with wrist bands, hip t-shirts, groupie photos, and most importantly, an impish glint of satisfaction in her eyes.
But I was surprised by her words the other day at coffee. To paraphrase, she knows she’s living a lie, but this fantasy gives her the freedom she needs to be at ease in her own life. Is this a form of contrived spontaneity? Living freely without responsibility pressing you down? Being both the benefactor and the beneficiary of your fantasy well lived? I find her solution, contrived or not, an act of brilliance that gives her character peculiar depth.
The number one guru in the art of spontaneity continues to be the almost six-year-old son who is offering wisdom laden lessons on a daily basis. Now if I could only set my adult blinders aside more often to take in his wisdom. On those occasions when I do, he not only connects me with the “I can do anything” mentality of my youth, but encourages me to allow myself that same vision in my adulthood.
Go! Do something spontaneous. And going out for a spontaneous latte grande is not what I’m talking about folks! If you do embrace your spontaneous nature, I’d love to hear about it!*
*(As long as it doesn’t involve shoplifting, stalking, or any gerbil-like weirdness.)