Breaking from the Rat Race
Every social system has its pros and cons, and meritocracy is no exception. While it allows equal opportunity, it also tends to favor overwork; it rewards power to the successful, thus encouraging the fallacy of identifying self-worth with personal success. When one identifies self-worth with success, he is inclined to work himself excessively since there will always be someone bigger and better to beat, and there will always be something newer and faster to get.
Living in an achievement-oriented society that rewards overwork can be degrading and even dehumanizing. To limit our existence to personal material achievement is to deprive ourselves of our infinite spiritual capacities. We are not animals who find their fulfillment in the repetition of daily survival; we are human beings who are capax universi – open to the infinite. We are capable of knowledge and contemplation, and it is not only good but vital that we allow ourselves time for both.
And this is the reason for leisure: it is a break from our workaday activities for the sake of contemplating and enjoying God’s creation. Leisure is not laziness, nor is it simply inactivity; it is being free from the tension of work in order to focus on higher things.
“We are unleisurely in order to have leisure.” – Aristotle
We all too often subordinate our vacations and weekends to our work: that is, even if we take breaks, we take them only in function of our work, and we break from labor simply because recovery of energy is necessary to continue laboring. But this is an inhuman way of living because it is actually a subtle form of enslavement to our jobs: even when we think we are free from work, we are actually still chained to it.
Leisure is not simply resting so as to get back to work. Rest is a result of leisure, but it is not its primary reason. Leisure, like divine worship, is one of those things that is done for its own sake.
Leisure is the contemplation of the beauty of God and His creation, something that can only be done when we free ourselves from quotidian stresses and tensions. In his essay Leisure: the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper states that “leisure implies…an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being ‘busy’ but letting things happen.”
To be at leisure is to consent to and fully accept your human nature; as one who is capax universi, you are capable of knowing anything you put your mind to and for this reason are said to be in “the image and likeness of God.” Obviously, only God actually knows all things, but you, as a human being, have the capacity of knowing anything. Although that capacity will not be fully realized until you reach Heaven, you are called to begin its realization here on Earth by taking time for “God-like” activity, that is, by taking time for leisurely contemplation.
Be still, and know that I am God. – Psalm 46:10
When you are at leisure, you imitate God:
God looked at everything He had made, and found it very good…On the seventh day God completed the work He had been doing; He rested on the seventh day from all the work He had undertaken. – Genesis 1:31; 2:2
The ways of being at leisure are numerous, but they all share in common this imitation of God on the seventh day: cessation of work and contemplation of creation. You can be at leisure hiking in the mountains, walking in the park, or simply sitting in your backyard marveling at the beauty of nature. Leisure can take the form of being with friends and family, enjoying the beauty of the beloved people God has put in your life.
Leisure can be sitting down with a cup of tea and a well-written book. It can be watching or participating in an athletic event and enjoying the beauty of human athletic talent. It can be attending a musical performance and relishing the beauty of human musical creation. It can be watching a good movie or documentary, going to an art exhibit, or going to a museum. It can be the enjoyment of the finer things of life like good food or vintage wine.
Opening Ourselves to Beauty
Whatever form our leisure takes, the important thing is the attitude that is behind it, which should be one of humility. When we are at leisure, we acknowledge that the world does not revolve around us and that it does not depend upon our work. Leisure implies that there is Someone greater than us, Someone who deserves the sacrifice of our time to marvel at His creation.
When we are at leisure, we free ourselves from the stress of work and open ourselves to the infinite beauty of God. As Josef Pieper puts it:
…the power to know leisure is the power to overstep the boundaries of the workaday world and reach out to the superhuman, life-giving existential forces that refresh and renew us before we turn back to our daily work. Only in genuine leisure does a “gate to freedom” open.