This Cancer Survivor’s Secret to a Meaningful Life
by Jim Burns
“If you are not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.” – Groucho Marx
One evening, Cathy (my amazing wife) and I were paying the bills. It wasn’t how I’d wanted to spend our evening together. Our youngest daughter, Heidi, came bouncing into the kitchen bursting with energy. She had just finished babysitting for our good friends Scott and Anita. She announced, “Scott and Anita are the best parents I have ever known! Their kids are great! Their dog is great! They are so fun and funny. I just love them.”
I’m not usually all that defensive, but I looked up from paying the bills, thinking, If Scott and Anita are so great, what do you think of us? Instead, I smiled and said, “You are so right, and they’re some of my favorite people too! Did you know Mom and I have known them since they were in high school?”
She looked puzzled. “Yeah, they told me. They said you were their youth pastors. You know what else they said? They said you were both so fun and funny.” It was a statement, but she asked it more as a question: So what happened to you?
The next day, I happened to be at our local pharmacy. For some reason, I found myself staring at a shelf of refrigerator magnets. I saw the perfect one, so I bought my first and only refrigerator magnet ever. It read, Are we having fun yet?
After my cancer scare, I didn’t decide immediately to work on my 401(k) or design a plan for world peace or find a better software program to pay the bills. But I did write in my journal these three words: Have serious fun! They became a major lesson and goal for the rest of my life. This may sound like an oversimplification, but a family that doesn’t play well together probably isn’t doing all that well. Fun, play, humor, and the building of lifelong traditions are all essential traits of a healthy person and a healthy family. Even an enjoyable work environment is a heck of a lot better than a stressful, hectic, boring, mundane, tedious, miserable, or mind-numbing atmosphere.
You really can’t do much about how others do life, but you can choose to have serious fun. It’s a choice you make every day. It doesn’t have to be giddy, extroverted, party-animal fun, but a playful attitude just might be the missing ingredient to a more meaningful life.
You might ask, What about all the negative circumstances of my life? I know it’s complicated, but even amid difficult circumstances, it’s still possible to choose fun.
It doesn’t have to be giddy, extroverted, party-animal fun, but a playful attitude just might be the missing ingredient to a more meaningful life.
Since my cancer surgery, I have found that one of the most important ingredients to a successful life is the choice to have serious fun. One of my goals for this year is “more play, less work.” How about you? I’m not necessarily succeeding 24/7, but it has helped improve my perspective tremendously. And I can say with certainty that the more I practice it, the better I get at remembering it the next time. Obviously, life throws a lot of tough stuff at us that can bring pain and sorrow, but even a little bit of fun can keep our strength from being sapped.
Play, the Missing Ingredient
Many spiritual experts tell us that the family that prays together stays together. I believe that. But I also believe that the family that plays together stays together.
Although we weren’t the worst family at having fun, we had become quite intense and serious. We had allowed stress to rob some of the joy of our family life. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore your problems. We need to feel our feelings and process them, and sometimes that is best done with a counselor, pastor, or friend. But play had become the missing ingredient in my marriage, parenting, and work.
After my cancer diagnosis, I found that play and serious fun became the glue our family needed to draw closer together. Play opens closed spirits and can even heal broken relationships. I had to learn that sometimes words don’t lead to connection with a loved one, but connection through fun leads to more words. I love what author Leonard Sweet said many years ago about marriage: “For a marriage to sing and dance, for two people to make beautiful music together, they need to play, not work, at their marriage.”
Naturally, there is work involved in making a marriage strong or bringing a family together, but if you want your family and personal life to really thrive, you can’t forget to ask yourself, Are we having fun yet? If your fun quotient is already met, congratulations! This is an affirmation of your good work at having fun. If your fun quotient needs some help, then the good news is you can do something about it as you move toward positive change.
Play Builds Great Memories
Have you ever noticed that some of the best conversation at extended family gatherings is often about positive family experiences? It was the time Grandpa fell into the lake while fishing or the time the entire family went to Disneyland and rode the same ride three times. Many of those conversations center around the good and fun memories of meaningful experiences. We tend to remember the vibe, the laughter, and the togetherness. We also remember the harder times, but it’s usually the fun times that bring smiles to our faces.
I’m not a person who has many regrets, and I don’t hyper focus on the few regrets I do have. But after my surgery, I wrote in my journal, If I had my life to do over again, I would order up less stress and have more fun. I would be more proactive about vacations and play and laughter and connection. It’s smart to build fun traditions for you and your family. The key word is proactive. You can be more intentional at having fun. Do whatever it takes. Stay away from the 24-hour negative newsfeed, take a vacation, a walk, a break. Add a new skill to your repertoire, like photography or painting or singing or tennis. Connect with old friends and make new ones. Fun will fill your memory bank and give you joy.
The problems of our world hadn’t disappeared, but that time to play gave us the energy and courage to step back into the not-so-fun moments of life.
Play Reduces Stress
As I focused on having serious fun, I remembered my PhD research on the traits of a healthy family. One of those traits is playing together. Play brings families together while building more affirmation and support. Families who have focused fun times together have a greater sense of belonging and joy as a family unit. Another interesting fact is that most people who do this also have lower stress no matter what their circumstances.
How’s the tension in your life right now? Some stress in your life is not bad, especially if it’s short lived. But constantly feeling out of control and overstressed can be the root of broken relationships and health risks.
Here are just a few ways to know whether you are overstressed:
- Do you experience a sense of urgency and hurry or have no time to release, play, or relax?
- Do you have underlying tension that causes sharp words, harsh startups to conversations, hurt feelings, or misunderstood messages?
- Are you preoccupied with escaping, finding peace, going on vacation, quitting work, or dreaming of a life with less stress?
- Do you constantly feel frustration about getting things done that you can’t shut off?
- Do you have a nagging desire to find a simpler life?
None of these factors is necessarily unhealthy in and of itself, but when they are added together and you experience them for an extended period, it is definitely time to take a break. Maybe an eight-day, do-nothing-but-play vacation to find perspective is what you need. How crazy are we to raise our blood pressure to dangerous heights and work our fingers to the bone, to be overcommitted and fatigued most days, and then try to recuperate with a day off when we are still connected to our cell phones, computers, and iPads 24/7? Then we go right back to the grind. Most of us know deep down in our hearts that something is terribly wrong with our lifestyle choices if we are constantly under stress.
After my cancer diagnosis, I found that play and serious fun became the glue our family needed to draw closer together.
Recently, Cathy and I sensed we had reached our max. We’d had some stressful challenges at work, a couple of adult kids had boomeranged home to live with us, and our world had turned upside down with COVID-19, protests, and a divided nation. We decided to just stop it all. Someone once told us, “Life is too short not to go on a spontaneous road trip.” We got in the car and drove up the California coast to the beautiful little town of Cambria.
We love it there. We took extra-long walks at Moonstone Beach, and there was an afternoon nap or two. We didn’t need to take 140 photos of the sunset, but that’s what we did. We laughed. We focused on each other and rekindled romance. Some intentional serious fun caused us to have much clearer communication. We disciplined ourselves to stay away from the negative newsfeed. We knew it wouldn’t go away, but for that short time, we were determined to refresh our souls.
As we were driving back home, we agreed we needed to commit to having more serious fun. The problems of our world hadn’t disappeared, but that time to play gave us the energy and courage to step back into the not-so-fun moments of life.
How about you? What would it take for you to be more intentional about having serious fun? Each person is different and each situation in life is a bit unique, so what can you do today to create some serious fun in your life?
Jim Burns is a cancer survivor and the president of HomeWord. He speaks to thousands of people around the world each year. He primarily writes and speaks on the values of HomeWord, which are Strong Marriages, Confident Parents, Empowered Kids, and Healthy Leaders. Some of his most popular books are Confident Parenting, The Purity Code, Creating an Intimate Marriage, Closer, and Doing Life with Your Adult Children. Jim and his wife, Cathy, live in Southern California and have three grown daughters, Christy, Rebecca, and Heidi; two sons-in-law, Steve and Matt; and three grandchildren, James, Charlotte, and Huxley.
This article was adapted from Jim’s book Have Serious Fun.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2022.
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