egardless of its specific form, work is an essential part of our lives. We work for good grades, we work to get a good job, then we work overtime, we work day and night, we work all week long, we work till we drop.
For something so mundane and seemingly inescapable, we attach a lot of importance to it, and not just in terms of “work-ethic”. Everyday language reflects this reverence in a thousand ways. Relationships — like machines, either work, or there’s disagreement, dishonesty, distrust — the works. When faced with problems, we work through them, and when we don’t succeed we often get worked up, in which case we have to work off the frustration by doing a workout.
So, how about play? Is it equally essential and reflected in our language?
The part of our lives most commonly associated with play is the one before work, when we are still young and blissfully ignorant of the laborious routines which are soon to fill up our lives.
Play is associated with something easy and pleasant, as in child’s play, whereas the importance of toil seems to grow the more one works up a sweat. Another aspect of play in the English language is that of pretense and scheming, whether for theatrical purposes or just to serve one’s own gain. Not just actors play their roles as described by the playwright, also off the stage we play someone for a fool, we play off one against another, play it for all it’s worth, then play down the consequences and when it all fails play dead.
Traversing The Work-Play Chasm
It almost seems as if work and play are diametrically opposed concepts in our common understanding, at least as reflected by everyday language. We work our backside off to gain a bit of money and free-time, in which we then go and see a play, or just head to the pub for a quick hand of cards. In fact, we tend to live as if there were two parts of life — and the twain shall never meet. On the one hand there’s the daily drudgery, on the other hand there’s the debauchery of after-work parties and hedonistic holiday culture. What we lack in terms of pleasure and fulfillment in the former we try to make up with the latter — the louder the better. To say it with the words of Theodore Roosevelt: “When you play, play hard; when you work, don’t play at all.”
“When you play, play hard; when you work, don’t play at all.”
Perhaps the only area in our language where work and play intersect is in sports. A football player doesn’t pretend, he plays out of his skin to win! To a pro-league tennis player, a match is not fun and games, it’s serious business and hard work.
One could look at the importance of sports in society from an angle of “bread and games”, i.e. as a governing body’s method of creating public approval through distraction, but perhaps the human need for play goes much deeper than a mere fleeting sense of enjoyment.
Yonder Sea, Great and Wide …
Isn’t it curious that in the legend of Adam and Eve, one of the founding myths of our culture, there is no mention of work until they are exiled from paradise? Only after the expulsion from paradise it is said that “in toil shalt thou eat”. Leaving aside trivial literalizations, one could understand this story by saying that in the primordial state there was neither need for work and play, since these two sides were still part of a whole. Work and play were not mutually exclusive. It’s only through human (mis)understanding that they became separated. Put differently, the iron curtain between work and play may be symptomatic of a very unwholesome way of relating to life.
the iron curtain between work and play may be symptomatic of an unwholesome way of life
This is not to say that historically speaking there once was a time were people frolicked on this earth free from worries, but rather to ask whether there may be an alternative to the societal approach (at least in the West) of toiling “by the sweat of one’s brow” and regular compensations of panem et circenses.
Since we’re already talking about biblical legends, there’s also a saying in the psalms which goes: “Yonder sea, great and wide … There is leviathan, whom Thou hast created to play in it“. Although the Hebrew לְשַׂחֶק-בּוֹ (lesachek-bo) is most commonly translated as play in it, referring to the ocean, one can also understand it as play with. We all know the phrase “to play god”, but if we consider this alternate translation here, even god plays — with the wale, i.e. the whole of creation is not a result of toil but the creative process itself might actually be closer to play. But even saying that the whale (the biggest of all creatures) was created just in order to play goes a long way to indicate the importance of play.
Perhaps even better known through the counter-culture’s eager import of eastern religions, there is also the term Lila in the Hindu tradition, loosely translated as “play”, referring to a way of describing reality and everything in it as the outcome of spontaneous, creative play.
Of Leech Collectors and Donkey Punchers …
No matter how we relate to these ancient legends and sayings, it may still be worthwhile to entertain the idea of play not just as a relief from work, but as its corresponding part, equally serious and equally important. To understand the seriousness of play, one only needs to look at children engaging in role-play. It’s not just a game. To them, it’s real. And it’s not just children, also our adult world contains many “games”, such as the behavioral codes in certain hierarchies, formalities of bureaucracy, etc. which can become deadly serious.
So, if work and play are really two sides of the same coin, one could ask, what if our daily work were a bit more like play? We already see that in many start-ups and technology companies, work culture is radically shifting away from one of hard, secluded toil to open offices with playful architecture.
What if our daily work were a bit more like play?
And even if you don’t spend your time riding bikes through the playground-like offices of Silicon Valley companies, technology has reduced the required amounts of daily drudgery quite a bit, even for us mere mortals.
We can now do most our shopping online, reducing unnecessary friction with the physical universe and freeing up time and energy for other things. Whether it’s buying our groceries from the internet or streaming movies from our sofas, life has changed quite a bit.
In a sense, there’s a new vacuum growing in many people’s lives. For many decades, we’ve been promised that machines will make our lives easier and more comfortable. Now that most factories are fully automated and every second household has a Roomba scuttling over the floor, we have to ask ourselves: what are we going to do with all that extra time and energy?
Are we going to invent new ways of toil to justify the invention of ever-new means of diversion? What if suddenly we don’t need to compensate so hard anymore because hard work itself is becoming as rare as donkey punchers, turnspit dogs and leech collectors?