I was with some friends at the park the other day, enjoying a rare warm winter’s day. The sand volleyball court was full. My group wasn’t planning to play until another group asked if we’d like to play against them. My group said, “Sure,” and took off our shoes and headed onto the court. One of the women from the other group hung back and when her friends asked if she was going to play, she replied, “I want to, but I don’t wanna get dirty.”
I couldn’t understand her reluctance. From what I could tell, she wasn’t wearing the kind of clothes that you don’t want to mess up; just shorts and a t-shirt. She didn’t look overly made up, or as though she had a manicure to protect, either. Her friends didn’t get it, either, as they rolled their eyes and left her sitting on the bench. She looked unhappy the whole time, left to watch her friends have fun until they were ready to go home.
Later, I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman. She intentionally chose to miss out on the fun because she was afraid of some dirt. I could understand if she’d said, “I don’t feel well,” or, “I don’t like volleyball,” or “I can’t because my arm hurts,” or “I just bought this outfit and don’t want it stained.” Anything other than, “But I don’t wanna get dirty.” No one says you have to play but if your only excuse is dirt (unless you’re allergic), I have to wonder about that.
Most of us enjoy getting dirty when we’re kids. We don’t think twice about playing in the sandbox, digging in the dirt, running amok on the playground, swimming in the lake or ocean, getting finger-paint or clay all over ourselves during arts and crafts, or getting sweaty and dirty during a pickup football game. We just want to have fun and a little dirt isn’t going to stand in the way. Dirt can even enhance the fun!
Somewhere along the way, though, most of us lose that fondness for dirt. Dirt and messiness become things to be avoided unless they are part of a chore like painting the house or working in the yard, and then they’re only to be tolerated and moved beyond as quickly as possible.
I think some of our dirt phobia comes from parents and teachers who constantly say, “Don’t get dirty,” or who punish us for messing up our clothes. That mantra gets internalized and we fear dirt. Some of it comes from the messages the media sends us. All of the adults are clean, perfect, and happy. The guy driving that swanky car surely wouldn’t lower himself to frolicking in the sand, would he?
Not to mention the fact that we shouldn’t smell. The world is full of ads for deodorant, perfume, and body spray and the message is always, “Heaven forbid you should sweat and smell a bit!” Never mind that any smell is temporary and easily resolved with a shower. The world tells us to hate dirt and so we do.
Then there’s the dignity issue. Some people feel that it’s just not dignified adult behavior to get dirty. It’s fine for kids, but adults are supposed to be more mature than that. What if someone from work sees us and we look foolish? What if we can’t get the paint out from under our fingernails and go to a meeting like that? The “What if’s are endless. What if you just didn’t worry about it and had fun anyway?
Dirt is temporary. Fun is forever.
The problem is that we, like the woman at the park, miss out on an awful lot of fun when we refuse to get dirty. Many forms of play require some dirt and sweat. Pretty much any sport will make you sweat, most will get you dirty, and things like working with paint or clay, playing games at a picnic, chasing your kids around the playground, swimming at the lake, playing outside with your dog, or playing on the beach are also going to get you dirty. If you don’t want to get dirty, you’re not going to have all the fun you could be having. Yes, there are plenty of forms of play that don’t involve dirt and you can stick to those, but if you choose only sanitized activities, you might miss out on some really fun stuff.
Not only will you miss out on the physical act of playing, you’ll also miss out on the social aspects, as well. Like the woman at the park, you’ll sit on the sidelines and watch while other people have all the fun. You’ll miss out on the conversations, inside jokes, and bonding that result from shared play experiences. Your friends will say, “Remember that time we…” and launch into some great story and you’ll only have a vague association with it. You won’t be able to say, “Yeah, and remember when I…” What? Sat on a bench? Not a compelling story. Opt out enough and your dirt-loving friends may quit inviting you anywhere because you’re just no fun.
Dirt is temporary. Fun is forever. A shower will wash away any traces of messiness. Most clothes are easily cleaned these days with a little bleach or stain remover. If something is so soiled that it can’t be completely cleaned, guess what? Now you have “play clothes” for next time. You can clean dirt, but you can never recapture those moments that you missed because you didn’t want to get dirty. Get out there and play. Enjoy the dirt, sweat, and fun, then go take a shower and do it all again another day.