Daydreams: Work hard, play hard: Rejecting a lifestyle of exhaustion and excess

Posted by Richard Chrisman

The dominant college ethic in my day was "work hard, play hard," and, from what I hear, it still is. For some reason, I never bought it. I thought the claim rationalized and romanticized college excesses. The work habits were extreme (e.g., last minute papers, all-nighters, panic cramming), and play was defined as heavy drinking.

Even though we were studying to improve our minds, the "work hard, play hard" ethic had the contrary effect — it boiled our brains. We were presented with high intellectual ideals, but campus party culture trumped them. What's more, the "play" as practiced never actually made the "work" any easier to bear. Students were left worse off academically and physically — we now know all about the permanent damage alcohol and drugs do to the brain. The hurtfulness of this escape into oblivion is pretty obvious, but with the passage of the years, I have come to understand from where the student need for it comes. And it's not due to the work.

After all, is studying really such hard work? Compared to what? By the time I was halfway through college, I had put in three summers on a cattle farm and two more on the assembly line in a factory. Many students today work hard summers, too, and I'll bet they would agree with me that, in comparison to physical labor, studying is in itself not that difficult. To be sure, solving equations, learning foreign languages and grasping the expanses of history or literature — all at once — can be exhausting, but enough to require the kind of anesthesia that is so often self-prescribed?

On the other hand, I do know that it is hard work to live under constant judgment, and being under intellectual scrutiny in particular feels painfully personal. In some way or other escaping it is imperative. Getting graded on everything you do, as occurs in college, makes any endeavor seem much harder than it actually is. When your work is constantly under scrutiny, when you are competing with your peers and when classroom participation feels like self-exposure, by the end of the week the self wants out. How to get away from it all? No surprise that when I was under these conditions, a good stiff drink was always welcome, and getting drunk was a regular necessity. But the cause is not the work; it's the personal judgment we feel in having our work graded.

If that is true, is "playing hard" the only remedy available? After all, what students seek is a zone in which we are just fine, even great, preferably invincible, as we are. But it is clear that the operative definition of "play" in college means "party," and, when under the influence, we do feel happily free of the judgment that steals us from ourselves.

However, if you consider a happy child, another definition of play suggests itself — an activity that has no other goal than to explore the moment. In the adult world, many activities qualify: sports, exercise, walking, artistic endeavor, dancing, cooking, conversation and daydreaming, among many others. Play of this kind leads us outside of time onto a path of discovery free of judgment - and there is no hangover (or brain damage).

It's true that adults need to be rid of adult inhibitions, sometimes, to get into a playful mood, and a drink can perform that function. How many drinks, though, does it take for play to become unhinged? After that point, all discovery is thwarted, except for the discovery the next morning of all the funny (and not so funny) things done the night before. This applies dangerously in cases where sexual activity may be involved.

Work hard, play hard — what is so wrong about this realistic, almost heroic, way of life? Nothing, if the terms are redefined a little. "Work in spite of judgment, play to free yourself from judgment." Under such conditions, we can wakefully experience the marvelous stories in which we are participating daily in college. So when you play, really play. Don't miss your life. 

Richard Chrisman is the Director of Religious and Spiritual Life on campus. He enjoys looking out at Skidmore through his office window.

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