Updated: Aug 18, 2020
We tend to pin our identity on how productive we are. Thus, we think of leisure as a break from work, an absence of activity, or idleness. Idleness, however, renders leisure impossible. It is the opposite and the utter lack of leisure. It is in coming to know and experiencing leisure for what it really is that we can live life to its fullest.
In his work “Leisure, the Basis of Culture,” Josef Pieper, distinguishes leisure from mere idleness by claiming it is an “attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.”
Rarely do I meet clients who are comfortable in silence. Rarely are they interested in the mystery of life and creation around them. It is a culture-wide problem. You ask them what their day looks like, and it is work and sleep, with constant business in between—little time for what Pieper would refer to as true leisure.
The truth is many people are busy even when being idle or slothful. They are busy on their phones; they are busy on Facebook, Netflix, or video games. These only serve as distractions that relieve us from a day’s work. It does nothing to prepare us to work more fully with all our intellectual, psychological, and spiritual capacity. It does nothing to rejuvenate us on a personal level. Thus why many of us suffer from burnout.
Leisure though not intended for the sake of work, aids us in being fully human, which does indeed allow for fuller participation in life, including work. You ever get back from work after vacation and think you need another vacation! You may be physically rejuvenated, but you are not mentally, psychologically, and spiritually rejuvenated.
The child who suffers from a lack of attentiveness to his chores, and trapped in electronics, will not be cured of his idle business by merely making him perform his chores. It will get the job done, at the moment, yes, but the only way out of chronic idle business is to help him find joy in true leisure.
True leisure again, as Pieper describes it, “a contemplative attitude,” was the highest good for humans according to the ancients. The ancients also believed that the highest forms of cognition do not require mental labor, but come without effort. This contemplative attitude thus is an opening to being present in the moment, that allows thoughts to come and go, being steeped in the whole of creation. G.K. Chesterton says, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” This is leisure, and it entails a mentality of receptiveness, a willing immersion, and appreciation of reality. I believe these are the fruits of a meditative and prayerful life as well. It is where gratuitous insight emerges that no mental work could ever attain.
I often set out to read a good book outside, enjoying a pipe or cigar with scotch or bourbon. Many times it ends with putting the book aside and merely enjoying a smoke and drink mesmerized by life around me immersed in reality. It is here that I am incredibly relaxed, in a way that I set out to achieve in reading a good book but would never have accomplished. It is in just sitting there in silence that I become refreshed.
Avoiding leisure drains you of all that is sacred; it deprives you of the capacity to appreciate life and strips away the importance of simply being. A life without authentic leisure will not endure the daily grind. You will become fatigued and overwhelmed. Sleep and rest alone will not help this tiredness. Sleep must come not from falling in bed from mere exhaustion. Sleep must be gentle, and it comes quietly by descending upon you, as Saundra Dalton-Smith notes in her book “Sacred Rest.” That only happens when we have enjoyed rest in our complete mental, psychological, and spiritual self, which leisure affords us. Good sleep is the byproduct of leisure.
If you go to work not completely (mentally, psychologically, and spiritually) rejuvenated from the weekend or vacation; if you suffer from burnout because you are stuck in this endless work/life balance; if you find yourself regressing into a lifeless sloth, and if you struggle with sleep, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, and Sacred Rest can help you. Understanding the benefits of being present in the moment, leisure (meditation and prayer) will go a long way for personal flourishing in all areas of life. I highly recommend it!