Happy family vacations are all alike — just look at the sunny, fun-filled faces in the magazine advertisements for beach getaways.
But every unhappy family vacation is unhappy in its own way. Just fill in the details of misery from your own past vacations — arguing kids, feuding adults, flaring tempers, sunburn, hot afternoons, rainy afternoons, surly waitresses, indigestion, chocolate ice-cream on the back seat of the car. And don't forget the missed trains, late planes and no-show rental cars.
Suffice it to say, family holidays don't always deliver the unrelieved happiness that the vacation industry promises.
Deep down, we know this. Experience tells us so. Yet, we continue to hope our vacations will be times of harmony, unblemished joy and spontaneous happiness. Even though we pride ourselves on being rational adults, somehow, we feel let down with the reality of vacationing.
We might ask: Why? Why in our culture of conveniences, labor-saving devices and easy travel do we suffer this strange malaise?
Digging beneath the surface frustrations and the usual mishaps, could it be that the roots of our discontent lie gnarled around our philosophy?
Philosophy — as in how we think about vacations. Our attitude.
This is where Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper would place the problem of vacation blues. Western culture has forgotten how to be leisurely, he says in his small classic, Leisure: The Basis of Culture. To vacation well, he adds, we must know how to be leisurely.
Pieper, drawing on Plato, Aristotle and the Scholastics, observes that modern man, unlike the man of antiquity, no longer works to live. We now live to work.
Work has become our life, who we are. We have absorbed too much of the utilitarianism of our culture, internalized the totalitarian claims of the world of work rather than the worldview of Christ, and, as a result, we're spiritually impoverished and diminished humanly. Because we've become fettered to production and value ourselves by how much money we make, we're often wholly consumed by work.
According to Pieper, modern man can often no longer act significantly outside his job. Because of this “religion of work,” we distrust leisure. Free time makes us uneasy and vaguely guilty.
For many Americans, vacations must be “useful” in some way, such as hauling the kids off to a Civil War battlefield, touring the Baseball Hall of Fame, or chasing amusement-park thrills.
“The ancients maintained that there was a legitimate place for non-utilitarian modes of human activity,” Pieper writes. “Leisure, it must be clearly understood, is a mental and spiritual attitude — it is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation. It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul. Leisure implies an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being ‘busy,’ but letting things happen.”
But our immediate reaction is to fill empty time. Our attitude is that we must be busy, useful, productive. The reason, according to Pieper, is deep spiritual insecurity.
“Leisure is only possible when a man is at one with himself, when he acquiesces in his own being,” he says. “Only when we are secure with our Creator and our own creatureliness, can we enter into leisure and be refreshed.”
Pieper describes this rejuvenation: “When we really let our minds rest contemplatively on a rose in bud, on a child at play, on a divine mystery, we are rested and quickened as though by a dreamless sleep.”
The Soul's Needs
So, a successful family vacation is much more than just taking the kids to the shore, traveling to a mountain resort or splurging on a luxury cruise. As incarnate beings, both our bodies and souls have “vacation needs.” While any travel agent can cater to the physical, we must look to the wisdom of our Catholic tradition for the soul's needs.
Genesis says that the Lord God created the world in his awesome sovereignty and tender love. Then, on the seventh day, he ended his work and rested.
“God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
In other words, the secret of leisure lies in contemplating — looking with love and with attention — at creation in all its beauty and majesty. Such contemplation is an act of reverence. As such, it is an act of receptivity, not passivity.
To be leisurely, we cannot blindly consume creation in a frenzy of filling ourselves with pleasurable vacation experiences. Another trip to the beach, another train ride, another parachute jump won't do it.
We need to mentally stop and appreciate the experience we're having here and now. Take time to point out to the children how green the grass is, how golden the sand. Really taste the lemonade. Really hear the seagulls.
The underlying problem with vacation blues is metaphysical. We must be contemplatives, not consumers. This internal attitude is what makes vacation happiness possible.
Contemplating creation draws our attention to the Creator. Then our spirit can rejoice in his reality and celebrate his generosity.
“Like the gift for contemplative absorption in the things that are, and like the capacity of the spirit to soar in festive celebrations,” says Pieper, “the power to know leisure is the power to overstep the boundaries of the workaday world and reach out to superhuman, life-giving existential forces that refresh and renew us before we turn back to our daily work.”
Ultimately, leisure must be linked to worship.
“The celebration of divine worship,” says Pieper, “is the deepest of the springs by which leisure is fed and continues to be vital — though it must be remembered that leisure embraces everything which, without being merely useful, is an essential part of all human existence.”
But, he adds, the modern religion of work is blind to divine worship and often inimical to it. We must overcome this tendency and expand our capacity for true leisure.
Carmelite monk Father William McNamara teaches that contemplation begins with looking and with wasting time with our Creator and his creation — including our family members.
“Long, loving, leisurely looks take time,” Father McNamara writes in The Human Adventure: The Art of Contemplative Living. “The real engages us and consumes our energy. If God is real, he must absorb us, each one of us, for a good part of every day. That means time must be wasted. Until I waste time prodigiously I do not take God seriously. If Christ is real, he must hold and captivate me for a lifetime; and I must dwell with him. If the persons and things around me are real, then I must take time to notice and enjoy them.”
If we take time — waste time — looking, really looking, at our family members, we will find that family vacations become an experience of family. If we learn to look at the people we live with and see them as persons, contemplating the gift that each one is, delighting ourselves in their presence, then vacation problems will become less important and less taxing. We might even find ourselves enjoying our time away together.
This article is reprinted from Catholic Faith & Family, another Circle Media publication.