Since the Industrial Revolution, mankind has invented thousands, or perhaps even millions of labor-saving devices. We travel faster than ever before imagined over land, sea, and air. Most of the world, even in the most impoverished areas, has a quality of life, or at least a potential quality of life, unheard of in human history. The early modern philosophers, such as Descartes and Bacon, said that this would be our lot. Turning from the inner world of spirit and mind to the outer world of matter and motion, we would allot to ourselves in our mastery of nature a new world, increasingly devoid of sickness, death, and drudgery.
Yet hidden in the midst of so much progress is a deep malaise, which I think is now so deeply ingrained in modern society that we scarcely notice it. Ask any person today how their day has been, and most times you will hear one of two answers: “Good” or “Busy”. Now, they both might happen to be true answers at any given moment. But as a manifestation of what is socially acceptable, I find it very interesting how often people have to say they are busy. How rare it is to hear someone, even someone who possesses wealth, to say that they spent the day in the company of friends and family, that they enjoyed the beauty of nature and the thoughts expressed in a great work of art or literature, or the company of neighbors, sport, and fun. These for some reason seem to be less readily shared, although we know no reasonable person who would ever deny saying that without these very things, life would be unlivable.
Josef Pieper almost 60 years ago wrote his famous work Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which is a must-read for any student of the humanities. Basing his work on a robust anthropology derived as much from classical ideals as from Christian theology, he presents an extremely convincing argument on the importance on leisure as that which makes human culture possible. That is to say, it is those things and persons upon which we “waste our time” that define us as persons and as a society at least as much as what we produce and do to secure our material welfare.
I believe this question of leisure and life is especially relevant in light of the ongoing pandemic and its reverberation throughout the labor market, and how it has also changed, and continues to change, social mores. After the March-April height of the virus in most of the developed world, how great was the delight of so many people to go out again into the sunlight, to see friends and family in person again, and to enjoy the sweetness of the spring and the summer. Without intending to do so, the forced quarantines and stay-at-home orders have renewed, at least on a subconscious level, the profound desire people have for not just incarnated social interaction (sorry, Zoom), but also intentional time spent with others.
I would define “leisure” commonly as that time which we are free to spend intentionally, apart from the basic biological needs of sleep, food, drink, and shelter. Now, we know certain types of leisure are based upon these needs, like whether a culture embraces an afternoon siesta or whether it has a certain type of food or another. But there is always something more here that everyone, whether educated or uneducated, knows: man cannot live on bread alone, and leisure is not just an ornament to life: it is part of what helps us to fulfill our human and divine potential.
Recently,I have spoken with priests around the world who, like many of the lay faithful, took the time of pandemic to go on a sort of retreat. Speaking also with families, I hear some common themes emerging. Let me start with the priests:
“I have discovered that if a priest does not have time to study or read every day, he is too busy.” “I have learned that if I do not take time to pray as I ought, I am too busy.” “I know that if I do not take time to enjoy friendships with fellow priests and vocation-affirming, positive lay people, I am too busy.”
A similar train of thought emerges among many lay faithful these past few months. I have jotted down a few:
“The importance of time spent with my family has a new meaning for me” says one, “and in spite of the difficulty of balancing work and child care, I have come to see how precious the time is with my spouse and kids.” “I have a new appreciation for my elderly parents and their fragility, and also how much I will miss them when they go: how good it is that we can be together!” “I miss sports and shooting the breeze with my neighbors. Actually, sheer boredom led me to talk to them again, even although we rarely talked before!”
I must admit that not all such assessments of life have been so positive and uplifting. It is also sadly illuminating to see how many have chaffed under the yoke of abusive relatives and neighbors, or who don’t know how to pierce through the loneliness. As much as I anticipate a great renewal in family life and friendship, I do also foresee a mirror collapse in marriages and communities which do not have relationships based upon love, trust, and healthy intimacy. Part of that has already begun with the great unrest we have witnessed this summer. Some, instead of falling back upon reservoirs of love and trust, have nothing to hold onto but resentment and fear. There is only one word for the void which floods into the psyche in the absence of love, trust, and community: its name is chaos.
Some post-1968 writers are fond of speaking of the conflict in postmodernity as that between culture and anti-culture, recalling that culture is derived from cultus which means worship. Therefore, culture, rightly understood, consists of those beliefs and activities focused around transcendent meaning. I am not so sure that the analysis, framed in such a way, is totally complete on an experiential level. I think when we speak of culture and anti-culture, we also ought to pay attention to what occupies the time and thought of the ‘average’ person. First, I think we should ask whether the typical Westerner especially believes that leisure time is ‘worthy’ or valued time. Moreover, I think it is helpful to ask whether one’s time is valuable at all, apart from being able to impart some utilitarian end.
Second, I think we can say accurately that where a culture’s leisure is directed, there is its future. Some people during COVID may have been able to rediscover that life is not fully lived as endless evenings watching Netflix or playing video games: we all need something more. But if the statistics on porn usage, domestic violence, depression, and suicide are to be believed, and I do not see reason to doubt them, many people have been given a lot of time to do absolutely nothing but those things they say they enjoy—and the person they saw after a month or months of these activities may not have been someone they wanted to see when all was said and done.
Many blogs and writers of the self-help type have given objectively good advice: “Learn a skill!” “Pursue a goal!” “Try something new!” All from the comfort of one’s home, if possible; yet despite the “Triumph of the Therapeutic”, the discontent and boredom that is so emblematic of postmodern life has never been so obvious to even the most casual observer. The summer months have given us some vent to our cabin fever; we rightly enjoy anew the warmth and the beauty of God’s creation. It is important to remember how much goodness and love is growing, even as we see on television so much hatred and fear. Such is the world of the anti-culture, a world bred in hatred and nursed in contempt, a generation which may aptly receive the Pauline appellation as “children of wrath”. Above and beyond any skill or life-coaching we may seek, we people who make up the culture of life and the civilization of love have a mission now without exception to witness to our neighbors what true love and community are.
As the summer vacations wrap up, and as our thoughts turn more to work and less from leisure, we will need far more than warm summer sunlight and sweet breezes to calm our spirits and soothe our souls. Just as the pandemic was a true invitation from God to be drawn back to the essentials of life, by giving most of us the time to pursue them, so I foresee this autumn will prove a crucial test of our combined resolve. As the days and the times become more dark than light, and as the divide between culture and anti-culture becomes ever more distinguished between those who love “the ashes of [our] fathers and the temples of [our] Gods”, and those who desire to consign the memory of both to the dust, this April will not prove to be our cruelest month, but those months yet to come.
In one of my favorite churches in the world, a lonely clock hangs in the sacristy, which has been there for at least a hundred years. It bears the inscription beneath it: Dum tempus habemus, operemur bonum While we have time, let us do what is good. May the current times, uncertain as they are, lead us to ‘waste’ every spare moment on those persons and pursuits we know do us the most good. Of course, this includes Our Lord above all. Like the wise Patriarch Joseph or the Woman of Samaria, if we ‘store’ our time rightly, we will not see want when leaner times arrive.
(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared, in slightly different form, on the Scutum et Lorica site.)
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