The Collegian
Tuesday, February 07, 2023

My take on: the work-hard, play-hard environment

During recent years, the University of Richmond has been quite generally referred to as endorsing a work-hard, play-hard environment. Various other referential sources reinforce this notion. A person only has to log on to any one of the various college search engines to find the descriptions of Richmond (in both review and discussion-board formats) enlightening incoming freshmen of the work-hard, play-hard motto associated with our dear campus community (including but not limited to www.talk.collegeconfidential.com or www.campex.com).

This campus environment is undeniably one within which students both work and play rather hard, but I want to extract from this phrase a degree of its value by dissecting for a moment what the phrase really means.

I'll speak for myself -- I work hard. I certainly do not wake during the early morning hours preparing myself to lift heavy objects or operate highly dangerous machinery for any great length of time (but I commend those who do). On the contrary, I wake up in the early morning hours to an alarm clock (which has remarkably evolved into a defibrillator somehow) preparing myself with an immediate sense of urgency to set off toward my first classroom or the nearest facility in which I can complete an inevitably massive amount of paperwork.

The day flies by in a fast-paced succession of readings, paragraphs, essays, responses, labs, sheets, posts and projects. Meals are eaten with eyes on the clock. Deadlines are omnipresent shadows in otherwise enjoyable situations. In the background of every pleasant conversation is the deafening ringing of the unchecked boxes in my list of things to do. My foot taps through every meeting.

There is always a more detailed response I could have given, a few pages I regret leaving unread. An assignment due in two weeks that prevents relaxation from entering moments where it belongs. (And although I will not insist upon speaking for others, how many readers realized they were skimming through this with that very sense of urgency? With that project in mind, or on your way to the library? How many of you have somewhere to be in 20 minutes, or glanced at the clock for no reason? My guess is the majority. Write in and correct me if I'm wrong.)

But what does it mean to play hard, for isn't the phrase itself an oxymoron? There was a time that I remember (before I worked hard) when I played. Growing up, I was a huge proponent of playing; I played everywhere I went.

Barbie assisted me in transforming trips to the beach into visits to the mer-world; I would witness 10 near-death rescues by Barbie for Ken in the same amount of time that everyone else on the shore saw (or didn't see) 10 small waves roll in, and my faith in humanity would be restored. I could become the queen of Egypt or a kidnapped actress at whim, and my excitement for life would be enhanced. Action figures could make even the most drab scenery majestic or medieval, and places would seem less boring.

These games were cathartic. This playing required imagination, and took place in a fantasy world in which creativity alone was essential. This playing was something that evolved spontaneously out of reality, and that breathed life into a monotony while enabling my escape from it.

Playing hard may be a distant relative of playing, but this distance must be noted. While aiming to achieve the same ends, playing hard adopts a different means of achievement. Playing was practiced by those possessing a particularly enabling mindset -- one which is unscathed by obligation, one which has not yet incorporated a system of priorities within which imagination is a nonessential. Playing is, with however much resistance we allow ourselves to claim, disabled by hard-working minds.

The hard-working mind is wound up -- no spontaneity can seep in. The hard-working mind is hyperactive -- reality cannot disintegrate from the foreground. The hard-working mind does not stop long enough on its own to smell the roses, and certainly not to play.

Enter: Play hard. This is the kind of play that takes place in direct opposition to work hard, its counterpart. Like yin and yang, playing hard counteracts and undoes the working-hard mind. It does so by introducing a facilitating agent: alcohol. This agent stops the working mind so that playing may begin, and the length of time endured by this agent is the length of time allotted to play.

Here is the problem: This agent promises us so much, and thus (true to what capitalism has shown human nature to be) we assume its maximum consumption to bring about optimal results. We consume more than is necessary to shut off our working minds, hoping our length of playtime may be lengthened, or the quality of our games may reach greater depths.

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We miss the catharsis, the excitement, the unpredictability of the fantasy world. We aim so desperately to escape reality that we accept the promises of an unreliable resource to help us. We reach out from our hardworking minds to capture something that cannot exist outside ourselves, as something that we have internally buried.

The opposite effect to that which we intended occurs, as we perpetuate a cycle with more and more force. We fall harder upon our work schedule the harder we play. We wind ourselves up more to make up for the length of time left out. We induce stress. We force ourselves to let it go.

It reappears, and the stress, the velocity with which it circulates our mind increases. We throw ourselves violently from one direction to the other and allow the cycle to accelerate when it should slow down. Reality does not become easier but more difficult to bear as we embody it, focusing ourselves on its unpleasantness by either indulging ourselves within it or numbing ourselves against it.

How do we end the cycle? This is a more difficult question to answer than I, or anyone else recognizing its difficulty, find less than shameful to admit. How do we recover our imagination, our excitement, our fun? Where do we look to retrieve the part of ourselves that once would have protected all the other parts from endorsing "boring" parts of reality, by granting them with any significance or devoting to them any time? How do we escape a cycle that shoves these genuinely valuable parts of ourselves further and further below the surface?

I do not want to give advice, because I can point in no authoritative direction. I want only for these questions to resound, so that perhaps we may all see where direction is needed.

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