Work, Play, and Purpose

(Written 19 December 2014)

Hey, I thought I would bless y’all with a little pre-summary of this article. Summaries are usually saved for the end, but I’m putting this at the beginning so the article makes more sense. Read it again once you finish for super-clarity.

Summary: Work has objective purpose, play has subjective purpose. Objective purpose is agreed upon by at least two people, whereas subjective purpose is created by and belongs to only one person.

In an ideal, congruent life, work and play overlap without pressure on your part. This is highly possible and sensible, yet it is an ongoing process rather than a static point to attain.

We forget how to have fun and play by being off-purpose and by clouding ourselves with incongruent purposes and activities; both of these basically mean the same. We forget how to have fun as a result of giving our power away.

Losing Touch with Our Nature: Forgetting How to Have Fun

I feel that I need to relearn the rapid healing I enjoyed during ultramarathon training over the Summer. However, I’m not sure whether it was rapid healing or just resilience. I like to think I remained injury and relatively pain-free because I ran with love.

To contrast, I think I hurt so bad after my run the other day because I ran with fear. I panicked. My mind screamed at the premise of being in the place of loneliness, meaninglessness, aimlessness that long-distance running suddenly became for me.

Why hasn’t this been an issue for me before? I don’t know. I suspect I may have forgotten how to just have fun now that I spend a lot of my time in the busyness of schoolwork, track-work, and computer/business-work. In a short matter of time “outside” has become something eerie and foreign to me, like I don’t know how to interact with it. What am I supposed to do with this thing anyway? Has it a point? What need has man for nature anyway?

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt like I don’t know how to have fun, and I think a lot of people- particularly adults- suffer from this. Without some apparent purpose we see little reason to participate in the activity.

This is not at all unreasonable, and I have written about this (e.g. in Building Trust with the Universe). However, think of the things that most adults do partake in—particularly, their choice of work. I doubt most of them would call their usual activities “fun,” but they must see sufficient purpose in them. Otherwise they wouldn’t do them.

So why is it that when we finally get the opportunity to have fun we feel blocked and resistant? Why does it feel like we’ve forgotten how to have fun? Does fun- particularly, play- need to have a purpose? Or does play, by definition, have no purpose?

Perhaps the answers to those last two questions are best left to you, but I think everything we do can have purpose. Specifically, it can be aligned with the context we set for our lives—even if we aren’t fully aware of this context yet. I see no reason why we must compartmentalize some of our activities into “purposeful” and the others into “purposeless.”

I wonder now if we “forget” how to have fun by doing a lot of things that are not just unfun but are also purposeless. I must clarify. Yeah, your job probably has the purpose of making you money which you use to buy food and pay bills. But by “purposeless” I really mean that these activities do not resonate with your life purpose, or, perhaps, your life context.

Yeah, yeah, I know you need that money to survive and thus have a life purpose at all. Alrighty. But why can’t you get that money by some means which does fulfill you and feel “on purpose” to you? Why should you settle for activities that are off purpose? Do you really think you’re cheating the system (that is, the universal consciousness system!) here?

For myself I’ve had difficulty establishing a purpose for running that makes sense to me. This past Summer the premise of running an ultramarathon was something I couldn’t say no to, and I know for sure that this activity was well-within my context for living. It has served me immensely.

This aside, I’ve been trying for a few months to convince myself that running will elevate my consciousness, but I just can’t seem to buy it on a deeper level. It’s like when someone says “Okay, sure,” like something makes sense to them, and then they go off and do something that’s totally out of alignment with what they agreed to.

Why might it be that I’m struggling with the thought of running long? To clarify I’m not concerned about the physical challenge—rather, I am scared of the sense of purposelessness of the activity. This gave me great anxiety several days ago and I cut my run in half (from 20 miles to 10). Usually 20 miles is the easiest distance for me to run.

Have I lost touch with my ultrarunning roots from a few months of competing on a team at shorter distances? Have I gotten too used to being told what to do, between school and Cross Country/Track? That seems plausible. I wrote about this in Floating Through Space; we get so used to trying to fill our time with acceptable activities that we “have” to do that once we run out of such activities we panic and have no idea what to do with ourselves. We look to the clock and hope for the day’s end.

Such is the epitome of purposelessness. Without purpose you are subject to fulfilling the purpose(s) of others. Well, or no purpose at all.

So what is it I need to do here—accept that running has become a dead-end for me (and thus quit, at least for a little while), or rediscover the joy and purpose in it?


Play and Work

Let me take a step back for a moment—I want to go back to play. I think a beautiful definition of play would be this: Play constitutes activities which have no objective purpose yet do have a subjective purpose. To contrast, I think most people would define work like this: Work constitutes activities which have an objective purpose and may or may not have a subjective purpose.

How ‘bout some examples? A child is playing with Legos and builds a castle out of them. The castle in itself likely does not serve people (including the child) in any way; this means that it has no objective purpose. However, the process of building the castle served the child by in turn building his fine motor skills, patience, logical reasoning, spatial skills, and more. It also, I hope, gave the child a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment; this is likely what he set out to build the castle for. In this way the child’s play has subjective purpose.

Now let’s put the same child at school, where he is instructed to write an essay on how whales are the rulers of the sea. The child writes the essay in order to receive a grade (score) and avoid failure, so that he may later continue on to the next grade-level (level of education). Because the meaning of scores and grade-levels is agreed on and attended to by multiple people, writing the essay has an objective purpose.

Arguably anything can by default have a subjective purpose. Surely the child gains something from writing this essay, even if it’s just better handwriting skill. However, the gaining of skills might be considered objective, because it is observable over time. True, hard (really “soft”) subjective purpose cannot be seen. It can only be understood and manipulated by the individual who holds it.

Sure, you can see the child smile while he builds his Lego castle, but can you force the purpose of enjoyment on to him? Can you force someone to feel happy? Can you force someone to truly want something, for reasons aside from avoiding punishment? Of course not.

Thus, whether writing the essay had subjective purpose is solely up to the child. It is no one else’s place to say.

For a little side note, I think my current track coach understands this—even if he wouldn’t say it like I do. If you don’t want to be on his team he doesn’t want you to be there. He barely gives into ambivalence. I’ve never seen him try to sway someone to be interested in running or to stick around. When you’re uncertain, he’s certain about not buying your crap.

On the other hand, when you are certain he will back your every step. He likes drive. He likes to see that your purpose aligns with his, but he won’t force this match. If you want to be let go, he will let you go.

Hm, perhaps the universe works the same way! J

To return to objective purpose, when I say that “the meaning of scores and grade-levels is agreed on and attended to by multiple people,” I mean that school is something people consent to. Objective reality is basically consensus-reality. The reason you can understand these words at all is that we have consented to the meaning of these words. They don’t have the exact same meaning for both of us, but we are at least able to communicate.

Likewise, the reason most people go to school is that most of us have consented to the idea that we should. We consent to follow the government’s requirements, and we consent to how the school system works. Without this consent there would be no school system—we create the school system, together.

Thus, objective purpose, in short, is something we can both easily talk about, agree upon, and point to. The child’s skill-building in the Lego example probably fits better under objective purpose than subjective; but, if he intended to build these skills through his play then they fit under his subjective purpose as well.

Let me re-clarify the definitions. Subjective purpose includes everything which an individual agrees to as being purposeful. Subjective purpose is unique to each individual. Objective purpose includes everything which we can discuss, whether it was intended or not.

Even something such as enjoyment can be considered objective, but if it was not intended by an individual then it is merely a by-product and not a purpose. Of course, an individual can change the status of enjoyment if and whenever he wishes.


Overlap: Work and Play, Objective and Subjective

At this point the boundaries of work are clear to me, but play is a bit unclear. The moment I start running to stay healthy and not just for pure enjoyment, for instance, does running become work? Because there are numbers and agreed-upon meaning attached to it, can racing ever be considered play?

What if I do something without much of a purpose? Or are we ever really without purpose? For instance, what if I scroll through Facebook because I’m “bored”? Isn’t my purpose, then, to alleviate myself of boredom or to “kill time”? What if I just lay in bed and stare at the ceiling? If I am a conscious being then surely I have some purpose for doing so—even if I don’t know what it is? Maybe to bathe myself in nothingness and/or depression?

A conversation on subjective purpose, of course, cannot go without mention of consciousness. Now as I think of subjective reality I’m wondering whether I’m trying too hard to separate objective and subjective purpose into separate bins. However, my doing this does serve a purpose, which is this: If you’re doing an activity which you have no sensible subjective purpose for, Why the heck are you doing it? Go do something which makes sense to you, smart alek. If you want to feel happy and wonderful and mushy on the inside, go do it.

How about work and play? For some of us these have quite a bit of overlap. As a rule of thumb I will say it is ideal to have work which you also consider play, and also to have play which you only consider play. However, have very little work which you only consider work. What this means: most of what you do should hold subjective purpose for you. It’s basically what I said in the last paragraph.

I think I need to add to my definition of play: Play constitutes activities which have a subjective purpose and are enjoyable. Yes, I understand that enjoyment is a part of subjective purpose, but I think it should be stated for clarity. I took out “have no objective purpose” to help you see that play and work can overlap.

How important is it to distinguish between play which is also work and play which is only play? Now I’m not sure that this is necessary most of the time.

Man, I’ve done a lot of mind-changing in this piece, huh? That’s okay—I think there is value in sharing my thought process. I like people to see that my conclusions- and really any conclusions- do not arise out of thin air. Not to be conceited, but genius is not the product of nothing. You have to spend time with and stay with problems. Stay with the problem is probably the most important thing you could ever learn—even if you never learn anything else. You won’t get a solution right away—and even if you do, it might not be complete. Not to get off-topic, but I think some of my peers have trouble understanding this. Thus, I am taking you along for the ride that is productivity. J

Anyway, when you have the elevation of consciousness as your primary purpose (which I’ve discussed elsewhere) work and play more easily become one in the same. To “work on yourself” can look exactly like playing, yet through the process you are fulfilling a higher purpose. If your playing contributes somehow to your growth, and your growth better enables you to work, then your play can serve others indirectly. Most of your objective work probably involves serving others directly, though it doesn’t have to. This work can likewise be play for you; the main criterion is that you enjoy it.

So should I change the rule of thumb to state that most of your life should consist of what you consider to be both work and play? Maybe, but I’m concerned that people will take this to mean that they should not do things without a clear objective purpose, such as playing games of any sort (particularly board games and recreational sports).

But I think sometimes we too rigidly define how we should serve others. You can serve people by pretty much any means. You can teach them lessons and fill them with enjoyment through playing games with them, for instance. That would hardly be considered work (maybe unless you’re a babysitter, camp counselor, or parent in this situation), but is that not a valid way of serving others?

You can never be sure just what effect you have on other people—for better or for worse. You could teach someone the greatest lesson of their life without you even being aware of it.

Now I’m returning to the beginning of this piece. When you are focused constantly on how you can serve others, rather than on enjoying the task at hand (such as playing a game), you might, in essence, forget how to enjoy yourself. You might forget how to play and have fun. Then everything becomes work, work, work for you—whether it looks like it or not.

Maybe most of your work-play overlap should happen seamlessly, without you feeling too pressured to emphasize either side. If your subjective purpose resonates with you then you should not feel intense pressure to carry it out. Generally only inherited, conditioned purposes which do not resonate with you create a sense of pressure. If it is a purpose you truly want to agree to, then that is the purpose for you. That can be the only consciously-chosen purpose for you. You cannot consciously choose to be incongruent, and thus to suffer (right?).


Living Congruently

As I discussed in The Search for Meaning, meaning must be sensible to you. You are bound to act in accordance with meaning and motivations that are sensible. In fact, those are the only meanings and motivations you are ever acting upon. What is sensible is unique to each individual, based on belief and experience. Whether these meanings are consciously chosen is another story.

Consciously chosen, sensible meanings are congruent with you on all levels- intellectual, emotional, spiritual (which, perhaps, is where purpose resides). Unconsciously chosen meanings are congruent on one level but not on all of them. Perhaps smoking serves you emotionally, but you disagree with it intellectually and you know it is not aligned with your purpose (e.g. it may make work more difficult for you). Likewise, running competitively at school serves my supposed needs for security, familiarity, and friendship (among others), but whether it agrees with my larger context (purpose) is uncertain.

Congruence indicates the transcendence of compartmentalization. To live congruently means that you don’t have to separate the different aspects of your life, such as spirituality and money, or work and play. Instead, each of these fuels one another- at least indirectly. I need not make time for play because all my activities are a form of play. Yet I am not some sloth, unproductive member of society because all my activities are also a form of work. To be able to say this is to be congruent.

Some people say that a child’s play might be his work. Well, of course it is! It’s only as we progress into adulthood that we start to separate the two. Perhaps this is the nature of the society we have established. Whether it must be this way for the mass of people I am uncertain; what I can say, however, is that it need not be this way for you. You can create your life however you’d like. You can put it in bins or you can enjoy all its contents as one.

I suggest you, for the most part, stay within the boundaries of written laws to do so—that is, as long as these laws are sensible to you. But the possibilities of what you can do within these laws are probably far, far broader than you realize. At least in America, there’s nothing against you making money on your own terms or even living without money. There’s no good reason you can’t live with two people who you both consider to be your significant others.

Yeah, maybe people say you can’t do that, but does that mean you can’t? Not at all. Even if it was in the law books it wouldn’t mean you can’t—but hey, those rules are not written down anyway, so it doesn’t matter!

If you want it and it makes sense to you, tell me what good reason you have for not pursuing it. I will pay you to come up with one.


P.S. I’m editing this on December 20th. On a whim I went for a 5 and a half hour run earlier. I think I remember how to have fun (and my purpose!). J

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