This past week I was talking to one of my friends about our winter break in between semester and how it was going for him. He looked at me and said it would have been good so far if he knew how to relax. He then proceeded to explain that whenever he’s not doing anything productive he gets anxious and feels like he’s wasting time. After listening for a little while, I realized he was touching on something that I too have experienced at times in my life, the classic workaholic blues.
So what is it that leads to these feelings of inadequacy and restlessness? I think that a lot of it stems from the utilitarian spirit which has penetrated our society, whispering in our ears at all times and saying that unless something is useful to me, it has no intrinsic worth. These lies lead us down a path of obsession, spending countless hours fretting over success and fame, popularity and approval. We feel as if we are not worth anything unless we become something great. We work in order to feel useful, and too quickly we forget that we work in order to enjoy life and not vice versa. In a world focused so much on becoming, it can be a real challenge to find time just to be.
Now we need to be clear here in addressing what leisure isn’t: leisure is NOT spending time playing video games or scrolling through a newsfeed or spending an hour gossiping on the phone. It doesn’t just mean “relax and do something that will distract you from your woes for a little while.” As a kid playing Call of Duty night after night, I remember being struck one time by the sheer amount of time I had put into the game. In one moment, I realized how disconnected from reality I was. I liked the rush of going on a streak and beating my friends online, but I knew there was an emptiness under all of it. In less than a year, a new game would be out and this one would be obsolete, nobody would remember my online ranking. I was spending time on cheap thrills and missing out on better things like deeper friendships and encountering the intrinsic beauty in the world around me. The game served its purpose well, it distracted me from reality and allowed me to live in a world of make-believe for a little while, where I could hope to find some fulfillment. Its utility was that took me out of reality and into another realm.
I’m not writing here to bash these things, though. Video games, social media, and other escapes from reality (like reading fiction or watching netflix) can all be a good things. There are definitely times in our life when we desperately need to escape for a bit and just chill out. I, like many others, enjoy many of these things on a regular basis. What I want to do here is drive a wedge between these things and a proper understanding of what leisure truly is.
Josef Pieper calls leisure the “foundation of Western culture.” We do “unleisurely” activity in order to have leisure. (1) It is a crucial element of life which we are designed to spend time in. However, by substituting true leisure with these forms of false leisure mentioned above, we are never quite able to “get our leisure fix” in a sense, and we are left feeling empty afterwards.
According to Pieper, the soul of leisure lies in celebration, and the meaning of celebration is “man’s affirmation of the universe and his experiencing the world in an aspect other than its everyday one.” (2) It sounds similar to the idea of “escape” that I mentioned earlier, right? However, the key difference lies in this: while netflix and videogames and the like provide avenues to experience other worlds, true leisure takes us into a deeper experience of the one we’re living in. It allows time for an encounter with truth and beauty. Putting ourselves in the presence of loved ones, going out into the wild for a hike or a hunting trip and experiencing the raw beauty of nature, learning to refine the ears to be able to pick out all the intricacies and beautiful elements of classical music or picking up a new hobby in woodworking; these are all examples of leisure which will leave you feeling satisfied and more fulfilled, in a way that surfing the web or binge watching a tv show won’t.
The holidays are now over. Everyone is getting back to the grindstone. This doesn’t mean we have to put leisure on hold. Each and every day can provide a new way to take time for leisure in our lives. If we allow work to consume our lives, what are we living for? To those who say I can never take a break, I say this: No, my friend, you can’t afford not to.
- Josef Pieper, “Leisure: The Basis of Culture p. 1
- Josef Pieper, “Leisure: The Basis of Culture p. 2