With the holidays gone and quiet winter yawning before us, it’s a good time to think about leisure. Of all times of the year, winter provides the least amount of activity. Whereas many people abhor Persephone’s descent because of the lack of stimulation, I love it precisely for that reason.
My love for leisure started when I read Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. It’s one of the most beautiful and insightful — if a bit difficult — books I’ve ever read. Its criticism of the busy life and praises of leisure can alter a reader’s viewpoint forever.
But what exactly is leisure? Is it laziness? Relaxation? Sitting around and daydreaming?
It kind of resembles all those things but, properly understood, leisure is a type of stillness. It’s the absence of pre-occupation, the state of mind that occurs after you let things go.
I guess you could say leisure is simply the ability to sit and do nothing. So why do philosophers like Pieper praise it? Precisely because when we do nothing, we get something.
It’s common knowledge that many of our best ideas hit us in the middle of the night or in our first waking moments. While we are completely at rest, not obsessed with ourselves or our work, ideas come to us like gifts.
I think it’s a type of grace. We don’t earn the ideas that hit us out of nowhere. We can’t buy the insights that come to us out of the blue.
We can only ready ourselves for such things, like the way we ready ourselves for grace by avoiding mortal sin, reading the Bible and praying. The grace of unearned ideas comes to us if we prepare ourselves by doing nothing.
Unfortunately, our culture has gotten good at non-stop stimulation, primarily because of electronic screens. I like television and tend to think the American pastime of indiscriminately railing against it is a bit ridiculous. But television has insidious effects, and one of its most pernicious is the one that rarely gets mentioned: It allows us to occupy all our time and thoughts.
All sorts of things can occupy our time and thoughts — shopping, exercise, socializing, golf, coin collecting, work at the office. But such things take energy. After a while, we tire. That’s a good thing. When we can’t go on, we plop down and stop. And then leisure, at least a weak and tired version of it, starts.
But not with television. When we plop down, we click on. We continue to be occupied. Leisure never starts.
It’s arguably a serious problem. G.K. Chesterton once lauded leisure as “the most precious, the most-consoling, the most pure and holy, the noble habit of doing nothing at all.” Leisure’s neglect, he said, would “threaten the degeneration of the whole race. It’s because artists do not practice, patrons do not patronize, crowds do not assemble to worship reverently the great work of Doing Nothing, that the world has lost its philosophy and even failed to invent a new religion.”
Just as I like TV in moderate doses, I also (obviously) like the Internet, especially the blogosphere. But over the course of writing this column, I’ve predominantly featured busy blogs: the ones that add fresh content every day, that feature buzzing comboxes, that constantly post new polls and pictures.
The vast majority of blogs aren’t like that. I estimate that fewer than 2% of blogs get updated daily. But that doesn’t mean the other 98% of less active blogs don’t merit attention. Far from it. If you want to read good bloggers who take a more leisurely approach to their blogging, try these:
• Against the Grain (ratzingerfanclub.com/blog). Perhaps the best non-daily blogger. When he posts, he posts thoroughly, with lots of links and facts.
• Disputations (disputations.blogspot.com). Heavy on philosophy and theology, though the blog occasionally takes on a lighter touch.
• In the Light of the Law (canonlaw.info/blog.html). To the best of my knowledge, the Web’s only canon-law blog. Lucid and well-written.
• Singing in the Reign (singinginthereign.blogspot.com). Two professors sharing the work load of a part-time blog. Talk about leisure, but talk about a good blog. Many thoughtful and substantial essays.
• Musings of a Pertinacious Papist (pblosser.blogspot.com). Great assortment of Catholic topics. Hard-core Catholic!
• The Arbiter of Common Sense (arbiterofcommonsense.blogspot.com). The least-trafficked blog listed here, but a good example of a typical Catholic blogger: eclectic mix, some autobiography, interesting nuggets.
Les Américains Busy
Busyness is part of the American landscape. It always has been. Back in the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French observer and commentator on American life, marveled at Americans’ restlessness and full-throttled living. He devoted an entire chapter to it in his Democracy in America, at one point observing, “It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare.”
De Tocqueville was primarily commenting on America’s work culture. Then as now, Americans work harder than their European counterparts.
I suspect we also play harder: When we get a few free hours, we hit the links. When a weekend opens up, we hit the ski slopes. When a week opens up, we hit Puerto Vallarta. In the midst of our work-obsessed culture, we have developed a play-soaked culture.
All work and all play, mixed together, keeping us in constant activity.
It’s not good. Play is good but not great. If a person uses his free time for play, he is merely replacing wage work with play work. It’s like changing from a smelly shirt into the sweat-soaked shirt you jogged in a few hours earlier.
Leisure is the highest pursuit because it does nothing, not because it permits us to run about wild. Nearly 200 years after de Tocqueville, we still haven’t grasped the simple truth that man is made for more than busyness. We’re unaware that man is made for leisure, stillness, peace and calm.
Until we gain this fundamental understanding, the grace and ideas that hit us out of the blue will be hard to find.
Eric Scheske blogs at
Fun stuff kids can do solo
What’s the difference between leisure and boredom? When kids complain of boredom, said one recent issue, smart parents point them toward fun ways to create and explore on their own. Some suggestions:
•Write a letter. This is a great way for kids to keep in touch, practice writing skills and perform an act of charity. Challenge your kids. Can they think of someone right now who would especially appreciate the gift of a small child’s artwork or a thoughtful, handwritten note?
•Bake a treat. Kids love to cook. Allowing older children access to the kitchen with a simple baking mix is a good use of time that produces satisfying results. Encourage responsibility by making sure they clean up after themselves, as well. The bonus? Warm brownies for dessert!
•Read a book. Kids will be more interested in reading if age-appropriate books are kept organized and accessible. A regular trip to the library to replenish a particular shelf or special basket with new books will encourage even reluctant readers to occupy themselves with reading.
•Head outdoors. In our house, we have what I like to call “enforced outdoors.” When the kids get whiny, I turn a deaf ear to complaints, open the door and shoo them out for a minimum of 30 minutes. More often than not, by the time 30 minutes are up the whining is done and they have immersed themselves in some kind of creative play.
•Dress up. Being prepared for make-believe play really pays off. We store old hats, purses, outgrown sweatshirts, discarded shoes, aprons, capes and costume jewelry in an old suitcase. Together they add up to hours of imaginative playtime.
•Clean house. Kids love to imitate their parents, and doing grown-up work is the very best kind of play. Allow them to use a duster on the furniture or sponges with water to scrub out the bathtub. They might even accomplish something!
Danielle Bean is senior editor of the Register’s sister publication, Faith & Family, where this was first printed. Online at FaithandFamilyMag.com