Are You Turning Play into Work?

Crew at the capstan of the ‘Parma’, weighing anchor, 1932-33.

In chapter 2 of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom gets a group of boys to perform a job that he was supposed to do. At the end of the chapter, he thinks about what he had learned.

Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a treadmill [a device used for driving machinery] is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Tom had a knack for getting others to see work as play. A casual browse through Twitter, especially if you follow writers, or aspiring writers, may persuade you that many of us have the talent for doing the opposite of what Tom did; we have a genius for turning play into work. I, for one, am an expert at it. Not long after beginning a new hobby, for instance, I feel compelled to import work procedures and methods into it—to set goals, objectives, schedules, routines, to track progress. Take something as simple as reading for pleasure, for example. I put together a list of books, create daily, weekly, and monthly goals, calculate pages to read per day, identify the number of books to complete in a year. Soon, I’m sweating to meet my self-imposed goals, exhausted by my “play”—play being something, according to Twain, that I’m not obliged to do.

In the book of Genesis, Chapter 3, verses 17-19, we learn something essential about work. God is speaking to Adam after his act of disobedience.

17 … cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Genesis, Chapter 3, verses 17-19 (NRS)

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” Work is the result of a curse, our primordial ancestors’ punishment for eating what God had forbidden them to eat. From now on, if they want to eat, they will have to work for it. And so we do.

Nowhere in the curse, however, does God say that man will not, or cannot, enjoy eating bread earned by the sweat of his brow. Making a living will be difficult, tough, hard work, labor that either literally or figuratively causes the worker to sweat—“in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.” But still, you can enjoy eating the bread you’ve worked for. Neither does God say that we must work all of the time, that we are never to have work-free time. Indeed, in Judaism, rest is mandated one day a week, on the Sabbath.

9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.

Exodus 20:9-10 (NRS)

Not only we but also our family, those who work for us, strangers who live among us, even our animals, are supposed to rest from work one day a week. Many cultures recognize the value of work-free time and understand that there are two types of it—rest time, like the Sabbath just mentioned, and playtime.

When I was a child, I enjoyed riding a bicycle. I would simply hop on my bike and go for a ride. It was like magic, a way to get from one place to another that was fun. As an adult, when I returned to riding a bike, things had changed; so had I. There were mountain bikes, road bikes, beach cruisers, bikes for commuting, folding bikes, recumbent bikes, and also biking shoes, caps, jerseys, unique clothes designed to wick away sweat. Logbooks could be bought to track your progress, record your distances and times. Puff, puff. The fun had gone out of it.

I took up writing as an adult—writing poetry, fiction, blogs. I don’t do it by the sweat of my brow, or at least I don’t want to. I’m certainly not earning any bread doing it. But if I’m not careful, I find myself becoming obsessed with producing a certain number of words per day, of writing a poem, or a short story, or a blog post, every set number of days, or weeks, or months. It requires great effort for me not to turn my writing into work, to keep it the enjoyable pastime that I wanted it to be when I started and still want it to be.

What about turning things the other way round, like Tom? What about turning work into play, or at least doing something to make it more bearable? Historically, sailors have performed some of the most difficult, dangerous, physical work in the world. And they did it singing. The work songs sailors sang are called sea shanties. There are different types of them. “Roll the Old Chariot” is an example of a capstan shanty, the kind of shanty sung when performing a regular, continuous task, like weighing anchor. (See the photo at the top of this post). Below is a rousing rendition of “Roll the Old Chariot,” performed by David Coffin at the 2010 Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival. Traditionally, the sailor leading a shanty would improvise verses. So also, it seems, does David. Usually, the verses we know are the improvisations that were popular. They’ve survived. If you give this version a listen, I think you’ll enjoy it.

All the best!

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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