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The Struggle Between Work and Leisure

There are few folks I know who aren’t obsessed with work—with being productive and busy, accounting for every second of every day. I have friends who either nurture or cast off friendships on the merit of how useful that person will be in their career. For all the hand-wringing of concerned Baby Boomers, Millennials are not as lazy and entitled as the headlines make them out to be.

We’ve forgotten how to rest well–how to account for our time without appealing to its productivity. It is difficult to divorce an action from its outcome, or rather, its utility. Sure, there is often much talk about “art for art’s sake,” but nowadays it seems as though our lives march in step with the mantra “work for work’s sake.” We assume that we can not only achieve salvation through our work, but that work is a good and just end in and of itself.

That’s dangerous thinking, not only in downplaying the role of grace in our lives, but because it encourages ideas like bringing back child labor. Our generation is already inundated with work and thoughts of work haunt our waking lives.

Every second of our time is being measured, weighed, calculated; it’s as if we are machines who need to be fine-tuned instead of beings whose telos is rooted in simply being. There is a constant struggle for productivity and usefulness.

Our diets, our entertainment, and our friends are chosen based on their usefulness. Is this primarily a “modern” problem? Assuredly not, but it is one which I’ve noticed in my life and the lives of those around me. Instead of being told to live a better, fuller life, we’re told to optimize our lives. It may not seem like there is much of a difference there, but there is. Fuller living does not mean more productive living. Vacations are sold as a means to better performance at work, and even as many newer companies offer unlimited time off, it’s a catch-22, because no one thinks they can afford to be away from work for long anyway. Sleep and rest are marketed as a means to more efficient work.

But what about rest for rest’s sake? Rest, not as a means to a busier life, but because it is essential to simply sit back and be. When did being become an outdated concept? We need to rediscover leisure.

I don’t mean leisure as spending our free time on entertainment or distractions, either. For that too is often “work”–the work of catching up on the TV series everyone is talking about, or the work of making sure your life is cool and adventurous enough to warrant “likes” and “favs” on your social media.

Eugene McCarraher, a professor at Villanova University, writes in the magazine Books & Culture:

 “Leisure is not a ‘vacation’ but rather a sacramental way of being in the world, the flourishing of a ‘celebrating spirit,’ the enjoyment of an ‘approving, lingering gaze on the reality of creation.’ Like love, leisure is most fully itself when it repudiates the performance principle. When, leisurely, we forego seeking to impress God with our talent for the strenuous life, it is possible to live untroubled by the ‘absence of preoccupation’ and radiate ‘a calm, an ability to let things go, to be quiet.'”

This sacramental sense of flourishing via resting in God stems from the importance of the Sabbath and leads into the eschatological reality of the kingdom of God. We are in need of viewing the Sabbath as not merely a day off, or as a break from labor, but as a holy day, set apart as a window into eternity–of the leisure of being in God’s presence, relinquishing our dominion over the world we strive so fervently for. Leisure is in the sparrow and the lilies of the field, the resounding implication of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 to “not worry about tomorrow” or to run after all of the luxuries that we think we earn with our work. And we not only work for the gain of wealth or prestige, but power over ourselves and the world around us. It may not be a conscious thought, but it’s nestled in the recesses of our hearts and minds: that we can redeem ourselves and be a better version of ourselves through the sweat on our brow or overtime at the office.

The kingdom of God requires work, but it also requires the wisdom of Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” Leisure is more than a negation of work, but an active sense of living out the act of grace and faith.