June 12, 2021

On Finding True Leisure Within Busyness Of Life

Mountains from author's trip to New Hampshire. Courtesy of the author.

By Abby Scott ’18

Quad Break was the first weekend this semester that I wasn’t running to a meeting, event, or locking myself away in a far corner of the stacks to finish all the homework that had suddenly piled up on my desk.

I packed my car with a few friends and a few board games, and we headed for the mountains of New Hampshire. In the week leading up to that break, I found myself saying over and over again “I just can’t wait to get away. I can’t wait to have a break from schoolwork. I can’t wait to have a weekend of leisure.”

Standing on top of a mountain that weekend, looking out at the sea of red and yellow treetops below, I thought I’d gotten it. I was living the leisurely life, celebrating the beauty of Creation, taking time away from my busy schedule to just be. Too quickly, though, I was reminded of all of my responsibilities on campus—classes, work, clubs—and I found myself back in the thick of college life. Sure, I had gotten a few extra hours of sleep over the break and had gotten a little pep in my step from the mountain air, but I was otherwise unchanged.  

I had to wonder if this was all leisure could be, and then I was reminded of twentieth-century philosopher Josef Pieper’s essay “Leisure: The Basis of Culture”. According to Pieper, my weekend away was not true leisure at all. In fact, he argues in favor of living a life in a leisurely mindset, which he defines as an act of contemplative celebration, of opening ourselves to and celebrating the work of the God in Creation.

True leisure, Pieper says, is not a means to the end of rest from work, but rather an end within itself.

Back on campus, as I prepared presentations and put final touches on mid-semester essays, I found myself contemplating what this kind of leisure would really look like in my life. If leisure itself should not be treated as a break from work, then my between-classes Netflix breaks couldn’t be real leisure, nor those trips to Panera for a quick dinner before heading back to the library to study.

These breaks from work might feel rejuvenating in the moment, but they’re nonetheless breaks for the sake of resting up in order to do more work, and therefore contrary to Pieper’s definition of leisure.

He emphasizes over and over that “leisure does not exist for the sake of work”, but rather for its own sake as a celebration of the divine. He writes, “in leisure, man too [like God in Genesis 1] celebrates the end of his work by allowing his inner eye to dwell for a while upon the reality of the Creation. He looks and he affirms: It is good.”

How this affirmation of and dwelling on God’s goodness in Creation should look in the life of an overcommitted college student, I still didn’t know. Would Pieper suggest that I throw my binders and textbooks in Gull Pond and turn towards a life of quiet yet celebrative meditation on the divine? Should I classify my moments of attempted leisure as nothing but idleness—something that Pieper condemns as completely contrary to the true nature of leisure? Yes and no.

What Pieper is arguing for is a reorientation of the mind and soul to a continual celebration of God’s good works.

Only through this reorientation—this refocusing—do we come to understand many spiritual truths: “Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear…”

Silence, in this sense, is not necessarily the absence of noise, but rather a state in which we quiet our hearts and minds, even in the midst of a busy semester, to tune into God’s still, small voice.

How much more valuable, then, are our undertakings when we are receptive to this spiritual reality, when we orient our hearts to worshipping and communing with the divine, even in the midst of a busy schedules?

Leisure, rather than serving as a break from the busyness, infuses the busyness with an understanding of the goodness of Creation and our place in it. We stand atop a mountain or on the steps of our dorm, where we look and affirm: it is good.

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