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Dish Soap and Greek Myths

By Emily N. Dial
By Prince A. Williams, Crimson Opinion Writer
Prince A. Williams ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a History concentrator in Adams House.

What state of being is necessary to get through a semester at Harvard University? Maybe the way to be is self-indulgent career builders with our eyes on the prize. Or perhaps the means to survival till winter break is keeping our nose to the grindstone without drawing too much attention to ourselves. Ultimately, all of us want to know how to cross the finish line with our health and grades intact.

I think I found the answer to this question under a bed of dish soap. And it isn’t any of the above.

A considerable amount of my vacation time from school is spent in front of the window at home, washing dishes. I feel greatly present when filling one side of the sink with bubbles while queuing up some extraordinary music.

Dishwashing reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus. As punishment from the gods, Sisyphus is forced to roll a boulder up a hill just for it to come tumbling back down when it reaches the top. Albert Camus, in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” uses Sisyphus’s tedious existence as a metaphor for our own lives. Sisyphus has no conception of a better day or afterlife. He understands his task — in our case, striving in life — is always unfinished, and this grants him a kind of freedom despite his constraining fate. Camus ends the essay by propositioning us to “imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Sisyphus’s boulder rolling is quite similar to how most folks seem to view washing dishes: as a punishment. It’s work, which implies that it’s something you have to do but would not do otherwise. But it would be a mistake to conflate work and punishment.

Students too frequently fall into the trap of maligning all work as burdensome and dreary, and it affects our attitude at Harvard. Perceiving every semester as work, something to overcome or accomplish, makes school a drag.

Outside of work, we set aside time to play. Unlike work, playing is a free state of being, akin to Miles Davis’s exhilarating jazz trumpet.

While people might associate Davis’s virtuosity with the hard work required to master an instrument, his improvisations would be lifeless and incoherent without the mental freedom of a state of play. Our academic lives are similar: To thrive in our educational pursuits is to adopt a state of play. And this requires rejecting the needless distinction between work and play. The best thing we can do is respond to what we are given and make jazz.

I realized I wanted to embody this state of being this semester by washing the dishes. If I could turn this burden of adolescence into a tire swing, then I could most certainly make a grueling term at Harvard feel like a symphony. These greasy forks and cereal bowls with cinnamon residue were just metaphors for club meetings and long-winded readings.

One of the biggest difficulties in executing this state of being is that it’s pretty contradictory to much of our educational experience. Institutional schooling, like much of modern culture, propagates a rigid separation of work and play. At school, we are to work, and work with rapidity, in order to advance and accomplish. It’s hard to catch us doing things for the sake of doing them — understanding that the point of the dance is the dance.

While difficult, it’s possible to do this, given that work and play are such blurred concepts in our lives. Concepts we associate with play can warp into work. Even Rocket League could become as redundant and burdensome as our least favorite chore. But this is a two-way street — the same goes for things we initially perceive as work. On some days, raking the leaves or shoveling the snow might even replace the fun of a swing set by showing us the same natural rhythm the swing possesses.

This is the secret to getting through a semester at Harvard. To be present, in the words of Alan W. Watts in his lecture on work and play, is to “be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now—and instead of calling it work, realize that this is play." Or, in the language of jazz, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.”

To live a contented semester as a dishwasher is to remind yourself existence is a biological game ready to be played.

This is how I imagine Sisyphus happy — by granting that he must perceive rolling the boulder uphill as cosmic gamesmanship. Our biggest mistake is taking our own play too seriously.

Prince A. Williams ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Adams House.

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