Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Work, Play, Obligation, Joy

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. - American saying

Work before play. - My Dad (and yours too probably)

Nowadays it is conventional wisdom that if you can you should make your hobby into your career. Do what you love. That is what parents are supposed to teach their children. It is what we are told at transitional stages of our lives such as the end of high school or college education. We are supposed to find joy in our work. Work and play are not supposed to be either or, any longer. We are allowed to have our cake and eat it too.

Are we though? Is that just the position of unbelievable privilege? Is it a kind of blindness that we believe every person should be allowed to get paid full time to do something they enjoy? Who would do the data entry then? Who would clean toilets?

On the other side is our deeply rooted "protestant work ethic" which tells us that there are certain things in life one just has to do. No certainties but death and taxes. Bills must be paid. Food must be bought (or grown). Toil is inevitable. For a great many, toil is not only inevitable, but heavy and constant.

Furthermore, there is a kind of joy to be found in hard work as our puritan forbearers attested. Plenty of artists are supposedly in exactly the position we tell our kids to seek - getting paid to do something they love - and yet they are miserable.

What is the the relationship of these things? Is play a privilege? A right? Is work a means to an end or an end itself? Is obligation the antithesis of joy or is there some other interaction between these things? Is there an answer that doesn't sound either fatalist "accept your plight and learn to like it" or myopic and arrogant "it's the right of every white, middle-class, American to be prosperous and happy?"


Dale said...

That's another big topic, but a couple of extra thoughts...

Finding something you love and making it your career isn't exactly sage advice. I've never known anybody that was lousy at their job and still enjoyed it. I've met plenty of people that were lousy at hobbies and still enjoyed them. Nobody I've known has said that they've loved their career every day that they do it. Ross Perot's advice was "whatever you do, be the best at it." (Cue Huck Finn singing Gratifaction)

Do your kids a favor and teach them the ability to do physical work. They'll understand the value of an education.

If you don't have time for play in America, you need to simplify your life.

And prosperous is a relative term!

Dale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doug Hagler said...

I think that old values of work apply less and less as society is mechanized. Right now most jobs in a given city involve a half dozen repetitive actions which, once learned, take no creativity and even very little attention to do.

This is quite different from the historical household, where everyone did a variety of little jobs, and a human being was not just a cog to be plugged into a huge wheel.

I think that work has never been so separated from satisfaction as it is right now, and the traditional Protestant work ethic just doesn't cut it when you're in a factory pulling a double shift or working a drive-through window.

I don't have the answer. Right now what I think is wise is to work in order to live and not the other way around. Most jobs are grinds, and I'm not sure that feeding more and more of ourselves into the grinder is really a good idea.

As opposed to the obvious option of disengagement from the modern factory-society, I would love for the Church to move to transform work into something that isn't so numbing. This would involve, like many other life-giving changes, less affluence for those at the top. But, really, if we don't accept less affluence at the top, our system is such that it will inevitably collapse and choose less affluence for us in a dramatic way.

I would say that play is a right because it is a necessity of life. Children's brains do not develop without play. Without play life is not worth living - if all it is is just sleep/grind/sleep/grind/die then I could hardly expect someone to look forward to that. I think that play is at least as important as shelter - it is possible, perhaps, to physically persist for a while without it, but human flourishing is impossible without play. If our system is such that that average person cannot play, it is a broken, life-taking system.

Craig said...

Or you can be incredibly blessed and have a job that is enjoyable and benefits others. I know it doesn't happen often, but when it does it's great. I sincerely hope you guys find the same thing.

Aric Clark said...

@ Dale

Prosperity is relative I suppose, but absolute bottom hasn't changed and no matter where you stand in the top 15% it is a long way from bottom.

@ Doug

Your point about mechanization is really important. The declining value of "labor" is seriously eroding the value of work. But there have always been jobs that were not exactly uplifting. I doubt serfs in feudal Europe, or slaves in ancient Rome, or untouchables in Brahman India found much joy in their work.

I agree though that play is necessary. In fact, I would say it is close to the heart of our purpose as God's children. Adam & Eve were put into the garden to play. Work was the part of the curse of being ejected.

@ Craig

Agreed. Such arrangements are great. Hardly the norm though.

Craig said...


No they are not the norm. But they are there and worth the effort to find. In my case, it is even worth the second job, that allows me to afford the non profit pay scale of the great job. I would also add that play is key. It took me over 15 years of self employed 6 day work weeks and almost no vacations to realize how important time away is. Once I made vacation and time with family more of a priority, my attitude towards my work changed for the better. Again, not the norm, but it's out there.

Dale said...

Interesting discussion.

The declining value of labor is a product of both mechanization and undocumented immigration. I know somebody will have a problem with that statement, but economics is a dismal science. If there is a supply of labor that is available at lower cost, the lower cost labor sets the labor rate.

The lifestyle that Doug talks about is essentially agrarian. You guys kind of crack me up - first your admiration for the Quakers and now longing to be Amish?:)

There is a point there though - I'd bet that average Amish family is "less dysfunctional" than the average city family - there isn't any TV to content with. I'll bet that they play better together too! And another thing - I'll bet that they're less prosperous.

Doug Hagler said...

Dale - I actually didn't say I wanted to be agrarian (and I've worked with the AFSC for years so close enough perhaps to being Quaker while still keeping my PCUSA card). What I said was that our stated ethics and theology around work were developed in pre-industrial society, and do not to contend with the realities of people functioning as machines doing repetitive labor.

I would also say that the problem is not a decline in value of labor, it is in radical stratification of labor, which has little or nothing to do with undocumented immigration, particularly if you take a global view. If my "labor" is chopping up sub-prime loans and selling them to my billionaire cohorts under false pretenses, my labor is treated as so valuable that I am not allowed to fail. If my labor is agricultural, it is fine if I die from pesticide-related disease.

Dale said...

Okay fair enough Doug. My only point is that the historical household that you describe with widely varied tasks is agrarian. Even small family farms have become more technology dependent, to the point that the tofu you enjoy is made from a hybrid soybean that won't die after being sprayed with RoundUp weed killer. That is how soybean fields are now kept weed-free.

I spent the first 18 years of my life on a small farm. By the age of 8 I spent most of the summer weeding my dad's fields with a garden hoe. I am familiar with agricultural labor, and I am proud to be a member of a union. The devaluation of labor in the United States is opposite the trend in the rest of the world. It has a lot to do with undocumented immigration and globalization. If you don't believe that, go and see who populates the fields of California.

If you want me to make a statement in favor of the tax cheat Geithner and his boss that have given 0% interest loans to banks, bought the "toxic assets" from the megabanks that created them, and now are fighting against the Volker rule, you are going to have to find someone else. So far, the only thing the Obama administration has done to "help homeowners" has really been to help banks.

If you want the PCUSA to be transformational in this matter, then the way to do it is to appeal to its members to volunteer as mentors. Low income schools are full of little boys who are convinced that they need no education because they are going to be rap artists or professional athletes. Teach them the value of an education, and you save them from the grind that you describe.