At work, or play?

“Is it only work if it’s outside the home then? Or only work if it involves people outside the immediate family?
Conversely, is it only leisure, if there’s no income or sense of duty attached to it?
There’s a certain amount of work involved in climbing a mountain, yet I suspect that most of the times when you’ve done that, it’s been more for fun than to pay the bills. Perhaps this is where vocation, life as work as love as service as duty and as joy comes in?
Or perhaps this is where I need a stronger coffee.”

I’ve been waiting for a moment to write about this wonderfully thought provoking comment to my blog about work from a couple of weeks ago. Work and play are concepts we think about quite a lot, especially as our job description is pretty well impossible to tie down; something like “Go and live for Christ in another culture…” Does this mean we are technically still working even while we are asleep, on holiday, having sex, playing solitaire (possibly not all at once)? How should one think about work and play, how does one define any difference between them?

Back in a different life, I remember leading a seminar on leisure where I began by suggesting that leisure is in the eye of the beholder. That was an important definition in a context of day-centre service providers who defined “leisure” according to activity, and thus believed that they were “doing leisure” by dragging disabled service users out bowling regardless of what the people themselves might have chosen had they been offered a choice. In this sense it is probably easier to tie down leisure than work; something which is freely chosen, and is perceived in some way as being enjoyable. So does that mean that work is by definition the opposite; activity which is obligated and unpleasant?

Although we probably reject such a harsh definition, to some extent I think it’s what we do believe, shaped as we are by the residue of the good old Protestant work ethic. In twenty first century terms this means we assume that achieving things is desirable, achieving more things is better, and achieving as many things as possible is the highest ideal attainable by man. We can make a virtue out of burn-out, but never out of laziness. As British society we also hold a (largely) unquestioned belief that work is something which happens outside the home, and that parenting and homemaking are neither work, nor appropriate alternatives to work, hence various government initiatives built on the assumption that putting kids into childcare is not only an option, but is the only valid option. In Christian terms this heritage also means that if we accidently catch ourselves having fun outside of our leisure time, then we start worrying that maybe we aren’t doing what God intended.

In our own context here, we are also conscious that other people are voluntarily giving to us to “do mission”, and this consciousness shapes the way we think about our time and resources… What is doing mission? Are we doing enough of it? Would our supporters still support us after they’d spent a week in our house? Is cooking lunch part of doing mission, or is that something that I do in order to enable us to do mission later in the afternoon? Does the answer to that question change according to who is at the table with us? And does even that answer change according to whether the invitees are our friends, or the topics of conversation covered?

On a different tack, one of the most interesting things that I have learnt about myself since being here is that I like to get paid. This surprises me because I’ve always been involved in doing voluntary things, and even where I’ve been paid I’ve never earned a high wage, took a thirty percent pay cut in order to do my last job just because I liked the look of it, abandoned any career aspirations when I realised that good teachers are promoted out of classrooms and into paperwork, and at interview I have frequently had to defend the question “what is someone of your calibre doing applying for this job”. So I always thought that salary wasn’t important to me. Now I know that the quantity of the salary doesn’t matter one iota, but its existence matters a lot. On my thirteenth birthday I was banging on some guy’s door demanding a paper-round. My first pay-packet was one pound seventy. I had the same feeling again last January when I was paid fifteen pesos to spend an hour helping with some kid’s English homework. That’s two pounds fifty. In Argentina that’ll buy you four litres of milk, or three packets of pasta. But it was the first time in over four years that I’d done anything that anyone thought was worth remunerating and it was water to my soul (which is one reason why I’m quite motivated by the idea that the special school here might be able to start paying me soon).

Back to the question; what is work, and how do we decide? In the last couple of weeks, amongst other things I have;

  • Written a sermon… could be work, particularly in the context of being a “full time Christian worker”, and certainly feels like work during the production process, but I’m also conscious that many of the other people who preach in our church write their sermons during their “leisure” time.
  • Organised a birthday party for my three-year old… nice thing to do for one’s kid, part of my duty as his parent, or an evangelistic opportunity as I get to know the families who rub shoulders through the nursery?
  • Been to the special school four or five times a week… probably the closest thing I have to “a job” as the rest of the world would identify one, but it also provides sources of friendship, and fulfils my needs to be valued and to use my skills in a meaningful context.
  • Travelled out to the villages several times a week… this is called a “project” and the church sees it as work. In practice it involves a lot of drinking mate and talking. Is this “making friends” or an “evangelistic opportunity”?
  • Taken part in the usual assortment of Scout meetings and activities… fulfilling my need to go out and play, or developing evangelistic contacts with the kids, parents, and other leaders?

So where are we up to? Work… could be paid, or voluntary; could be obligated, or freely chosen; could be enjoyable, or arduous; could happen at home, or outside; could involve the family, or total strangers; could be identified as work by others, or remain completely unrecognised…

I suspect, in the words of my learned friend, that perhaps this is where I need a stronger coffee.

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