It's Just Fencing: On Approaching Life with Playfulness and Sincerity, Not Seriousness
It's just fencing
When I was 15, I spent a lot of time at Swordplay, the local fencing club. One of the programs I attended was called "junior team"—twice a week practices for all the kids who wanted to be serious about fencing. These were the kids who thought they might like to compete in local or national tournaments, who wanted to train hard, and learn the sport inside out.
Of course, being kids, sometimes we'd goof off, or stand around chatting instead of fencing. That was a cue for our coach, George Platt, to call all us sweaty kids into a circle to divulge some of his hard-won life wisdom—usually in the guise of stories of past students or tournaments from years gone by. Some kids would stand gulping water from plastic bottles, others plopping down on the floor, fanning their faces. The room always felt warm; there was no air conditioning, just a couple big fans pulling hot air from outside.
One talk was ostensibly about commitment. George would remind us that we were all at junior team practices by choice. We were there to train hard, fence hard, work hard. So he expected us all to do that. Come to practice. Care about the sport. Then he'd say, "But in the end, it's just fencing." It's just fencing. The lesson was, treat this sport as really important... but don't forget that the rest of your life matters, too. At the end of the day, fencing is only one piece of your life, even if it's a really important one right now. Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence. That always holds true. Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.
Seriousness versus sincerity
It has been nearly two decades since I first heard George say, "It's just fencing," and I can't count how many times that phrase has popped up in my head to remind me that the rest of my life matters too. Whatever I'm working on, whatever I'm doing: It's just fencing. My whole life matters, not just that one thing. Spend time on what's important. Stay balanced.
Recently, I came across a year-old Twitter thread by Michael Ashcroft about the difference between seriousness and sincerity. Think about two people playing a game. One person forgets that the game is a game: they're serious; the game is reality; there's no sense of play left. The other person never forgets that the game is a game, and they throw themselves into it anyway: they're sincere; they opt in; they play.
This difference between seriousness and sincerity reminded me of the other half of George's equation—the part where he expected us to work hard at practice. He wanted us treat fencing as something important, even though it was just fencing. He wanted us to opt in—to be sincere, not serious.
I remember George saying another time that we should be upset if we lost bouts at a tournament. Not because we lost, though. George didn't care about winning for winning's sake—he promoted pursuing excellence over success, i.e., maximizing your individual potential as a fencer rather than maximizing the number of medals you got. No, we ought to feel some disappointment upon losing because that was a natural consequence of being invested in an important bout. If you weren't invested, were you fencing your best? Were you putting in as much effort as you could?
Approaching life with sincerity
Dr. Peter Gray has written extensively on the importance of play for children's development. He draws on earlier psychologists, especially Lee Vygotsky, in explaining the paradox of play: "serious yet not serious, real yet not real." What he's saying is that play is sincere—you opt in, you participate fully, and you also remember that it's just play.
Play, of course, is not only something children do. Board games and video games are easily recognizable as forms of play. Fencing was play for all us kids at those junior team practices—any sport or competition can be play. Dr. Gray considers the writing he does to be a form of play.
Michael Ashford, in his tweets on seriousness versus sincerity, considers life to be a form of play. To approach life as play is to approach it with sincerity—to acknowledge the inherent absurdity of the world, to accept that so much is out of your control, and to roll with it anyway. Opt in to whatever life throws at you and keep moving forward. This is approximately what I try to do.
After all... it's just life.