A Case for True Leisure: Finding Rest and Contemplation in Trying Times

January 19, 2021 Updated: January 19, 2021

Two days before New Year’s, I took my daughter, my son-in-law, and their seven children to supper in a restaurant here in Front Royal, Virginia. Regulations require wearing a mask into this place, but once seated, off come those bits of paper and cloth, and diners may eat without covering their faces between bites.

Seated at the tables around us were another 14 people enjoying their meals and the company of family and friends. Our masked waitress brought the menus, three boxes of crayons, and some paper, and the younger members of the crew were soon coloring away. Everyone, including the 3-year-old, put on a wonderful display of manners during the meal.

Neither the children nor their parents had eaten in a restaurant for six months, and my daughter several times remarked how wonderful it felt to be “normal.” For all of us, the hour spent at that table brought a sweet magic to the evening, a respite from the grim months of pandemic and the gloomy news of our national elections.

Finding relief from the stresses of our private lives and from those brought by national events is vital to our mental and spiritual health. The guy who spends his working hours selling insurance, the intensive care nurse under constant pressure during her 10-hour shift, the mom surrounded all day by children and their many demands: all need some way to shift gears and cultivate leisure.

Escape Versus Leisure

Some remove themselves from the demands of the day by seeking oblivion. They spend their evenings drinking too much wine, or they plop down for 3 or 4 hours in front of a television. Some students shuck off the demands of the classroom and play video games until midnight while others turn from their distance-learning Zoom classes to chat with friends via electronic devices.

All of these activities may erase the pressures of work or study, but do they qualify as true leisure?

In “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” which I read many years ago and which I recently referenced in another article in The Epoch Times aimed more at recreation than at a deeper sort of leisure, Josef Pieper examines the meaning of leisure. He makes the case that true leisure involves contemplation, the ability to be alone with ourselves, and “immersion in the real.” His book warns of the totalitarian hold of work on human beings in modern times, the dangers to our humanity when we define who and what we are by the jobs we do, and the consequent loss of our ability to experience the wonder and mystery of the world around us.

“Leisure: The Basis of Culture” was published in 1948, yet Pieper’s warnings about the dangers of linking our lives too strongly to work and his advocacy for the classic ideals of leisure remains as pertinent today, if not more so, than when he wrote his book.

A Look at Sir Winston

churchill
Winston Churchill walking through the ruined nave of Coventry Cathedral, England, after it was damaged in the Coventry Blitz in November 1940. (Public domain)

Through much of his adult life, Winston Churchill lived fast and hard. He saw combat as a soldier in wartime, he fought many political battles, and of course, he led Great Britain through the dark days of World War II.

Like us, Churchill sought relief from these burdens, ways of escape from his responsibilities. Sometimes he drank heavily. He gambled. As a young man, he played polo. These activities undoubtedly provided him a break from his many onerous duties, but by Pieper’s definition, they don’t qualify as real leisure.

But two of Churchill’s hobbies do meet Pieper’s criteria of solitude and contemplation: painting and masonry. In 1915, the middle-aged Churchill took up a brush and palette, and found solace in painting for the rest of his days. A few years later, he took up bricklaying as a form of relaxation. In both activities Churchill immersed himself in the real world, practiced these arts in solitude, and surely at times entered into that state of contemplation recommended by Pieper.

churchill painting
Winston Churchill painting in southern France on March 9, 1955. (Public domain)

A Look in the Mirror

Writing these words and thinking of Churchill caused me to look at myself and wonder: Do I practice leisure? Do I engage in any activity that takes me away from my work, in this case writing such articles as these, and that qualifies both as a change of pace and an opportunity to put on a different pair of glasses and perceive the wonders of life on Earth?

Reading first came to mind. Though I have opened fewer books than usual this year—I have resolved for New Year’s to spend more time with the printed word—all my life I have loved books and reading.

Yet it seems to me that reading books doesn’t meet Pieper’s standards for leisure. Like the man pouring too much gin down his throat every evening, I become drunk on words; like the woman who puts aside the tensions of the day by watching reruns of “Frasier” at night, I look for entertainment and escape in my reading.

Reading means solitude, and on occasion I may find secondhand wonder in some author’s insights, but it doesn’t really “immerse” me in the real world, and the wonder I experience comes secondhand from authors I’ve never met.

Wonders and Mysteries

So when, if ever, do I remove myself from the work-a-day world, however briefly, and engage in leisure?

After some consideration of these questions, my morning coffee came to mind. Every day I take my first sip of coffee on the front porch of the house where I live, and it is then I often marvel at the miracles of the ordinary. For that little patch of time, before the duties of the day march up to make their demands, I watch the coming of dawn and the disappearance of the stars, listen to the singing birds, a chorus diminished now with the arrival of winter, breathe in the morning air, and offer a prayer of gratitude that I am alive and able to witness and be a part of these marvels.

Taking walks alone can also bring on contemplation, though in this case my doctor’s recommendation that I take these daily walks mars the purity of the act. Nevertheless, my solitary strolls do take me away from my laptop and books, and frequently give rise to thoughts free from the distractions of work.

Other Routes

woman sitting outside
(Serhii Yurkiv/Shutterstock)

Of course, there are other roads to contemplation a la Pieper. Praying or just sitting on a boulder on a hill and taking in a sunset: all can inspire deep thoughts and appreciation of the world.

“Stop and smell the roses” may be a hackneyed phrase some find amusing, but that old adage fits Pieper’s definition of leisure. When we slow down or turn away entirely from our work lives, when we look—really look—at a grandchild playing with Lincoln Logs, at a sleeping baby, or at a full moon gliding through gray clouds, for that moment, however brief, we receive a glimpse of the mysteries surrounding us.

Moving Forward

Though some of my siblings and friends believe the new year will bring brighter days than those we experienced for the last 10 months, I’m afraid I disagree. We’ll be on a hard path for a good while yet. We’ll need to fight to preserve our liberties in the ongoing pandemic, and a change in the calendar won’t ease the burdens of those facing financial hardship from business closures and lockdowns.

The good news: we’ve learned some lessons from these tough times—liberty is fragile, state and local governments can be oppressive or heavy handed, and no one, including our experts, really has a handle on how to fight the virus that wrecked our economy. That knowledge may help in the battles facing us.

More good news: some politicians and commentators insist we are in for a dark winter, with some of them seemingly intent on making it so, but we don’t have to go along with them. As we enter 2021, let’s remember to pause frequently and absorb the abundant mysteries surrounding us. Let’s remember to look at one another. Let’s make the effort to keep love, goodness, beauty, and truth alive in our hearts.

When we engage in this sort of leisure, we can discern the light beyond this veil of shadows and sorrows.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.