Leisure? You Never Even Knew Her

A successful life requires work. No one needs convincing of that. What we may need, however, is to understand and to be reminded of the dire need for proper leisure. I don’t just mean rest, quiet, amusement, or a mere cessation of work. Purposeful leisure is something totally different and more strategically complex than a break from work. Most of us are doing it wrong.

This is not a message to reiterate that we all probably work too hard and too often. That sentiment is likely overstated, a bit cliché, and also accurate. It’s an entrenched, cultural issue now to be a workaholic. As we may quickly generalize the widespread problem, we cannot deconstruct the “why” of it quite so easily. Why do people over-work themselves? Why do you? Everyone has different needs and motivations for their work behavior. Some people work hard for selfish reasons like money, notoriety, or power. Some do to be distracted from other pain, or to possibly to avoid harder, more emotionally intense work. After all, the workplace can be an easy place to hide. There are a million reasons we overwork, some good and some terrible. (Perhaps another post will follow defining efficient rest and true recreation, and the need to master both. I think we do them both poorly as well. Rest is for recovery. Recreation is for rehabilitation and renewal.) Today, my desire is to highlight leisure. Leisure is not just resting to prevent physical sickness or a mental breakdown. It’s totally different. Leisure may be difficult to get right, but after some practice, it can function like jet fuel for your success.

Aristotle made the point that our culture does not suffer from an overabundance of leisure, as many people are quick to diagnose. Rather, it suffers from “never knowing her at all.” The thing that we confuse with proper leisure is what he calls amusement. Amusements are the short breaks and welcomed distractions that happen alongside of work. These moments are necessary, but they do not require much of us. Aristotle says, “Amusements are more to be used when one is at work, for one who exerts himself needs relaxation, and relaxation is the end of amusement, and work is accompanied by toil and strain… we should be careful to use amusement at the right time, dispensing it as a remedy to the ills of work.” An example of this would be a coffee break, social media updates, a round of golf, watching a movie, or tossing a frisbee. The point of amusements is just a mental break, a breather, and a maneuver to distance ourselves for a few minutes to prevent mental and emotional gridlock. They are typically enjoyable for the simple fact that they are not work. These are necessary, defensive moves to prevent a disaster and in turn, increase productivity.

By contrast, to be at leisure is choosing to be free for an extended period, without the immediate need to return to the work task. It’s not part of normal working at all. It’s totally exclusive and does not happen by chance or circumstance. It must be deliberate. Leisure makes us free to pursue studies and activities aimed at the cultivation of virtue and character. It affects who we are, not just what we are doing. Proper leisure produces growth of the mind and spirit. This is a conscious decision. The purpose of good leisure is maturation, education, and healing. The intent is not mindless distraction and entertainment, but mindful meditation and growth. The intent matters. The “why” comes first, followed by the “how.” The “what” is probably least important. Socrates referred to real leisure as, “the most valuable of possessions.” For those that get it right, every aspect of their life improves. I’m going to repeat that message. For those who get leisure right, every aspect of their life improves.

The point of good leisure is not just to be at leisure, but to intentionally use it to be able to place more abundant living into the ordinary times. It’s transformational. When executed well, it makes us more present, more aware, and more effective. It requires intense focus and mindfulness. It does not exist just because work has stopped. It doesn’t show up automatically or unintentionally. Unlike amusements, if leisure isn’t done correctly, it produces very little benefit.

If our focus is 99% work and 1% leisure, we won’t make it very far. We must make an intentional shift and give the leisure a place of prominence in our lives, in our minds, and in our hearts. Our culture is starving for deep and meaningful conversation that produces change. We long to discover the virtue that deep down, we believe exists in some men, however rare it may be. Leisure helps us to see more clearly what we need to do, because the focus is on something greater than a monetary project. It transforms our work because we can connect with “why” we want to do it a different way. Our work can then become a purposeful form of duty and sacrifice. We offer our best, constantly improving, and can offer something better on the next round. One of my favorite authors, Archbishop Fulton Sheen puts it this way, “No amount of piety in leisure hours can compensate for slipshod labor on the job. But any honest task, well done, can be turned into a prayer.”

What if you decided to stop, look, and listen to your own life and the lives around you? What if you took a half day this weekend to be alone? What if you made an open ended reservation to have dinner with an elderly friend and have deep, meaningful conversation? What if you properly used your weekend? How about taking a sick/vacation day off to sit and read a book, take a course, work on your art, or go on a pilgrimage? Doesn’t your mind need this? What if you stopped talking, and started listening? What if we stopped working and started breathing?

What if you learned how to make leisure work for you instead of working all day in hopes of one day having it?

Whatever you choose, place a pious intent at the forefront and keep it firmly fixed there. That alone has the potential to change everything. Know why you are entering this space. Don’t be discouraged if you fail to see immediate results. Return back to the place of leisure, time and again, refining the focus and the will ever more. Practice until you master the craft. Know her intimately and visit her often. She will always be good to you.

A simple-minded contemplative

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