The Sacred Work of Play
by Elle Berry | 22 July 2021 |
I was twenty-six years old when I had my quarter-life crisis. Most people are probably familiar with the mid-life crisis, so the idea of a quarter-life crisis may be new to you. However, it is not for most Millennials. As it turns out this generation is so full of overachievers that dozens of us sprinted to our life crisis an entire quarter of a life earlier than our elders. It is of course not a coincidence that the Millennial quarter life coincided with a number of social landmarks, including everything from economic to geo-political to technological transitions. The reality was, by our twenties, most of this generation was absolutely winning the stupidly rotten game of crisis bingo our society had constructed. This made us primed and ripe for the quarter-life meltdown.
My quarter-life crisis included, among other things, leaving my perfectly stable government desk job (mid-recession) to train as a Montessori preschool teacher. For the unfamiliar, the Montessori method is an early childhood teaching pedagogy developed by Italian educator Maria Montessori during the early part of the twentieth century. It emphasizes independence, multi-age classrooms, and long blocks of uninterrupted work time. While the sanity of an introvert taking on the responsibility of twenty-plus preschoolers for full eight-hour swaths of time is obviously dubious (and switching jobs in a recession was bordering on insane) the experience was not without merit. Of the many things I learned during this chapter of life, the one I most value is that I developed a deep appreciation for the sacredness of human work.
Maria Montessori noticed that young children don’t come into the world hating work, nor do they distinguish between work and play. In fact most children under the age of about four will eagerly seek to join in household chores as they mirror the adults around them. Children intuitively love bringing value to their community. And while I didn’t continue as a Montessori teacher, I’ve often thought about this observation.
During a recent yoga class I was reminded of this when our instructor mentioned how she’d been thinking about the idea that “obligations are premeditated resentments.” The truth of this statement really struck me; I hardly ever resent something that I do not feel obliged to do. Which perhaps helps one understand how children, who do not feel the pressure of obligation, also do not feel resentment toward work. It is only as we age that we come to find the possible resentment in the obligation of work.
Work and Play
But what makes work work? According to theologian Dallas Willard, work is something we do that brings value and is necessary, whereas play is something we do that brings value, but without necessity. It’s easy in this definition to find the obligation—for if something is necessary, then it can also be something we are obliged to do—and therein lies the possibility for resentment.
The necessity of food is an example of work. Planting, harvesting, foraging (buying), and preparing food is necessary and therefore work. In contrast, music is not necessary; therefore making instruments, composing songs, and singing is play (literally called “playing music”). Both food and music bring tremendous value—the difference between them is not in their value; the difference is in their necessity. Of course there might be crossover in these categories; culinary creation is not necessary and therefore can make the work of nourishment into play, and if music is your occupation, you may have a necessity in using the money you make from music to pay for food. But generally speaking, in order to live we must eat, while we’d probably survive without singing.
In many ways, we live in a very hedonistic world. Pleasure is perhaps more ambient and readily available than ever before—often a mere click away. Yet can we say the same for play? Sadly, I would argue this is not the case. If anything, the culture around us is highly driven towards productivity, work, and in particular, things that lead to monetary gain (or you might also say, capital). To return to my quarter-life crisis, I should note that, of the many things Millennials have been labeled, the one that rings particularly true for me and many of my friends is that we are the “burnout generation.” While often being accused of being lazy or entitled, what actually seems more apparent is that Millennials are workaholics. We’ve grown up inundated with an internalized sense that our identity is somehow linked explicitly to how we answer the question “what do you do?” And our value is linked irrevocably to the necessary (that is to say, monetary) value we bring to the world, and we have monetized nearly every quadrant. We thus become defined by our work.
Our obsession with productivity means our society often refuses to find value in that which is not necessary. Or perhaps worse, we only give value to unnecessary things when we make them more monetarily rewarding. In other words, we only see the value in work and we fail to see the value in play. Perhaps the saddest travesty of prostitution is not that it manufactures value where there is none, but that it produces necessity and obligation where they should not be. When we exchange the spontaneity of play for monetary gain, we risk a kind of prostitution, so to speak, by ascribing value only to things that bring monetary return. Of course, in an ideal world we would remain children at heart, ascribing value to both the necessary work and the unnecessary play, resenting neither.
Yet for many, work far too often brings a sense of urgency and crushing obligation. Many of us lack the capital or equity to consider leaving jobs that underpay and overask. To say no is to forfeit access to health care, childcare, or housing, and to do so in a society that increasingly penalizes poverty. Yet with an ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots, the obligation of our work grows, and with it the potential resentment. We are not only losing our ability to find joy equally in work and play, but many of us are in the process of losing our capacity to play at all.
The church should be the counter-cultural solution here. After all, the core of the Christian message is a non-earned salvation based on grace, not works. Perhaps while we are juxtaposing work and play we might also conclude that our salvation is a great and glorious act of play; infinitely valuable, but not born of obligation. There is no room for resentment in grace. Yet, western Protestant Christianity often creates a confusing subliminal message epitomized in “the Protestant work ethic” and romanticized in the ideal of the “self-made man.”
Necessary value, that is to say monetary value, is the deciding vote in nearly every quadrant of our lives, and the church doesn’t seem to behave much differently. Even with women’s ordination we should be honest: the question isn’t whether or not women should serve the gospel cause. The question is whether or not the church deems such work necessary enough to pay them in the same way they pay men (spoiler: they don’t). While we all agree on the value of the gospel, the church sends a powerful message with their pocketbook. In a productivity-driven world money becomes the conduit for how we determine value, so when you pay a man more than you pay a woman, you are saying that the work men do is necessary, and the work women do is expendable. This is a powerfully damaging message to send women in the church. We come to the church looking for a looking glass that we might step through into another kingdom, yet instead we find a mirror simply reflecting back the world we were trying to leave behind.
That said, play is something you would think Adventists would be pretty good at doing. Our name starts with “seventh-day,” meaning quite explicitly we’re Sabbath keepers. The Sabbath is a day of non-work, which would be a wonderful opportunity to play. After all, worship is the highest form of play. I think it’s interesting that God explicitly includes non-work in the commandments, but doesn’t really bother with work. Children play; animals play. God wants to make sure we don’t forget how to play. It’s as though God knows we’ll always make room for the sacred act of necessary work, but it would be all too easy to not value what we cannot buy or sell. The simple cure to rampant greed is play. The truth is the Sabbath is a radical statement against our consumer-driven, productivity-obsessed world. As songwriter Josh Garrels writes, “My rest is a weapon against the oppression of man’s obsessions to control things.”
Unfortunately, I infrequently find church to be a house of play. Our need to build and grow and produce leads us to squish evangelizing and witnessing into every margin, including (and possibly especially) on the Sabbath. We are stressed with the message that “the workers are few, but the harvest is plenty.” Every introvert I know is tired just reading that last sentence. In fact, given the amount of emotional energy going to church takes, most introverts (to varying degrees) find the mere act of going to church to be a type of work. Socializing is work; performing morality is work; keeping the Sabbath is in fact work. There are so many reasons why the younger generations are opting out of church, but it shouldn’t be missed that for a generation of burnouts, adding yet one more obligation to perform produces anything but repose. Where is this alleged kingdom of Jesus with the easy yoke?
The opening scene of the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows begins with the wizard Prime Minister saying, “These are dark times, there is no denying. Our world has perhaps faced no greater threat than it does today.” Regardless of political affiliation, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt that in the last few years. And now, post-2020, we all drift restlessly back into the wreckage of a back-to-normal post-pandemic world, ever aware that we have lived through (and are living through) dark times. There is no returning to normal now, and play, more than ever, feels like a luxury, not a mandate. Which is perhaps why we need it more desperately than ever before.
But lest you mistake this for the wide path (and not the narrow one), it’s crucial to understand just how vulnerable play is. For true play is a place where joy readily resides. Yet as researcher Brené Brown says, “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience, and if you cannot tolerate joy, what you do is you start dress-rehearsing tragedy.” Perhaps the most glaring indictment of our workaholic productivity-driven culture is the degree to which we are descending into fear and conspiracy driven narratives. Or as songwriter Propaganda puts it, we “rehearse the worst like practice makes perfect.”
Yet there jumping from the pages of scripture with jubilee, God whispers, laughs, sings, shouts, and mandates a solution. Remember to rest. Rejoice. Joy in the kingdom is your strength. And there in the midst of all this resting and rejoicing, could one but help to play? I realize play may feel contraindicated when the world is so dark, but in our work-saturated world where we feel that “no days off” is some kind of flex, play and restoration is the prescription we all so desperately need. There have been thousands of words written on the subject of how to bring the younger generations back into the church. But what if the answer was actually more childlike than we realized? What if church stopped being another obligation, and another performance to clock in, another overly monetized institution? What if the church were a place for a more childlike kingdom, where we might easily engage the sacred work of play?
Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com.