The Personalist Project

Having learned from Josef Pieper that the heart of true leisure lies in a joyful and effortless affirmation of reality, I paused, the other day, when I read Glenn Tinder's description of it as "an opportunity for the cultivation of personal excellence." Doesn't that formulation turn leisure into a mere self-help tool, something we pursue for the sake of self-improvement? And isn't that almost the exact opposite of what Pieper means by it? Just take this passage from Leisure, the Basis of Culture

Above all, one cannot simply "make" it happen for some ulterior purpose. There are certain things which one cannot do "in order to…" do something else. One either does not do them at all or one does them because they are meaningful in themselves. Certainly the doctors are correct in saying that lack of leisure makes one ill. But at the same time, it is impossible to be truly at leisure merely for the sake of health.

I understand and agree with what Pieper says here. And yet, I cannot deny  that pursuing genuine leisure, as opposed to opting for mere entertainment, is often hard. It is something I need to work at. Moreover, I work at it partly in order to deepen and cultivate my inner life. Tinder's formulation, therefore, captures an important truth of my relationship to leisure. I view it, not merely, but also, and importantly, as a "cultivation of personal excellence." I want to be the sort of person who enjoys and is nourished by high values. The goal is effortlessness, but it takes an effort to get there.

There is something else in my experience of leisure that is confirmed by Tinder: that it is easier in a communal setting. When I am alone, for instance, I am more likely to watch an easy, entertaining movie, than when I am watching with others. A cynic might think this is simply because of peer-pressure. I don't want others to know I prefer James Bond to Babette's Feast. But the cynic would be wrong. Somehow the burden of watching a more demanding movie is made lighter, the appreciation of it deeper, and the enjoyment fuller, by doing it together with others. For another example, take the celebration of Christian feasts like Easter, Pentacost or Christmas. It is much easier to live them well in a like-minded community. Not because the others make us pretend to be more pious than we really are, but because they help us enter and celebrate the mysteries. A real celebration is something we do together.

The social disintegration, then, from which we all suffer nowadays, is a major reason why leisure has become so arduous. In ancient times, Tinder writes, leisure "was achieved through participation" and so "release from work did not tend, as it does today, to throw man back on the solitary self."

Combine this social disintegration with the increased amount of free time we enjoy today, and it becomes clear

why recreation has become so conspicuous a feature of modern society. Recreation is not leisure because it is devoted to pleasure and not to the excellence of self. Thus it offers a way of accepting liberation from the routines and pressures of work without falling into the abyss of leisure.

The abyss of leisure! What an expressive phrase. I wish we could find a way to make it less applicable.

Comments (6)

Robert Klesko

#1, Feb 5, 2013 3:13pm

Just a few random thoughts because it just so happens that this has been on my mind as well, due to my lack of time for real leisure.

On the concept of leisure as "self-help" or recreation in between periods of work ... it does seem that modernity, especially American society, views leisure as merely a mechanism to stay off the demon of unrest in the workplace.  Thus, we have an improper definition of "leisure" and of "work".  We work to obtain leisure, and one cannot obtain leisure until one has worked hard enought to earn it (aka retire/prepare for death).  

I think the key here is to recapture the true value of "work" as a labor to which one is called to participate in something which gives meaning and dignity to the self; as well as "leisure" as the affirmation of reality in joy.  Work and leisure cannot be opposed.  Leisure cannot be seen as the end of a life's labor; they must be integrated into each other and thus the person may learn who they are from two  great perspectives.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Feb 6, 2013 7:15am

Interesting point, Robert.

I think you are right. It is not only our experience of leisure that is out of whack, but also that of work. Americans especially, it seems to me, tend to value work in terms of efficiency only, and to ignore or instrumentalize the working person. But if selfhood is not asserted in, and developed through, the many hours we spend working then it will not be healthy and strong enough to bear and properly enjoy leisure.

Sam Roeble

#3, Feb 6, 2013 9:18am

Watching the orthdox jews of my neighborhood celebrate their shabbat from Friday evening to Saturday looks a bit more like work than leisure at first.  They take great pains to get together, to have everything prepared...but, if you've seen Fiddler on the Roof, you can get a sense of the deep rest that comes from celebrating tradition with family/friends/neighbors. 

The modern world, like the unfortunate unfolding of the movie, has lost tradition.  That is, the good habitual celebrations done together with people meaning to celebrate God, life and rest.  It is no fault of Judaism or Christianity for such loss, rather, it's the fault of the isolationist culture of our day.  I agree with Jules, people cannot improve alone.

My wife and I make it a point to set apart Saturday night through Sunday as a time of good food, company and tradition.  Maybe someday we'll have enough courage to invite our jewish neighbors to compare with our traditions!

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Feb 6, 2013 9:25am

Samwise, you give me occasion to mention again the wonderful Israeli movie, Ushpizin, which I reviewed here.  I was struck by just what you say: the enormous efforts the entire community goes through in order to celebrate the Feast well and properly.  

I like what you and your wife do.  We've recently re-established family fish Fridays.  Maybe we'll be able to manage leisurely Sundays too someday.

Sam Roeble

#5, Feb 6, 2013 9:38am

In a nutshell then, I believe we should re-capture Sunday for study, company, tradition, and pursuing excellence. 

Another movie that fits this point is Chariots of Fire.  Eric Liddle refuses to do any type of work on Sunday, including compete in the Olympic games.  Though extreme for my purposes, his stance on the Christian sabbath speaks volumes to the heads of state who disagree with him.  Simultaneously, it contrasts with the jewish runner (Mr Abrahams) who restlessly strives to accomplish that which seems effortless to Eric Liddle.  So, my point is that, like Liddle, if we refused to compromise on subjects like the sabbath, then work/competition would seem more effortless. 

I can attest to such a stance in my own life.  Sunday re-charges me for the whole week when I live it well.

Sam Roeble

#6, Feb 6, 2013 9:41am

 Oh yeah!  Ushpizin is awesome!  Many of my neighbors have seen it and share it with me as commonground for belief in God.

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