In Defense of Leisure

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“Her work was all she had or wanted. But there were times, like tonight, when she felt that sudden, peculiar emptiness, which was not emptiness, but silence, not despair, but immobility, as if nothing within her were destroyed, but everything stood still. Then she felt the wish to find a moment’s joy outside, the wish to be held as a passive spectator by some work or sight of greatness. Not to make it, she thought, but to accept; not to begin, but to respond; not to create, but to admire. I need it to let me go on, she thought, because joy is one’s fuel.” – Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged. [i]

The quote is a poignant vignette in Ayn Rand’s depiction of her heroine, Dagny Taggart. Dagny is a strong, confident, and independent woman whose passion for her work is as ruthlessly inexorable as a locomotive engine charging ahead at high speed. Like other heroes in Atlas Shrugged, Dagny’s unusual intelligence and ambitious drive enable her to “hold the world on her shoulders”…to keep the engine of the American economy going despite the human incompetence all around her.

The poignancy of the quote lies in the fact that it reveals something vulnerable about this woman of incalculable strength and ability, a need in her soul that all her willpower could not erase. It is a need she shares with every human being: the need for genuine leisure.

Let me state at the outset that I do not define leisure as laziness or inactivity. As originally conceived, leisure is a very profound concept that generally escapes most people’s sensibilities. The German philosopher Josef Pieper (taking his cue from ancient and medieval thinkers) offered this erudite definition of leisure:

Leisure is a way of looking at the world, born of an affirming oneness with the origin of all being and an authentically free, gracelike experience of the meaning of reality as a whole.

At the risk of seeming presumptuous, let me try to take that definition down a verbal notch or two:

To be at leisure is to step beyond the daily grind of life, not to rest passively but to contemplate intentionally the deeper meaning of my existence, my place in the world, and the ultimate spiritual values that animate my soul.

Leisure is a state of being we must choose to enter. It doesn’t just happen when we “stop working.” It requires intentional thinking. That’s why it escapes many people.

In fact, most people exist in either one of these two states of being:

  • Functional activity, in which we simply do what needs to be done, accomplish what needs to be accomplished, checking off all the tasks on our list. In this state, we identify with whatever function we have at the moment. I’m “at work.” I’m “parenting my child.” I’m “cleaning the house.” I’m “doing something productive.”
  • Mindless inactivity, which we often mistake for leisure. In this state, we are often consuming something (technology, sports, food, alcohol/drugs) to escape from“the real world” of nonstop demands, activity, and busyness. But to consume is not the same as to receive, and while we may be feeding our bodies or our attention spans, we are not feeding our minds and souls.

Like Dagny Taggart, all people need genuine leisure, and sadly, America’s cultural institutions that ought to be promoting and encouraging leisure, aren’t. Churches, schools, universities, and various forms of the arts seem quite often to be promoting even more functional activity or mindless inactivity. They offer few opportunities to step back (not escape) from the “real world” in order to contemplate intentionally deeper questions like: What is my ultimate purpose? What is the good life? What ultimate spiritual reality imbues our lives with wonder, majesty and grace?

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The academic disciplines that normally ask these questions—aptly named the humanities—have largely ceased to inspire such noble contemplation and have become instead breeding grounds for social and political activism. There are few institutions today that truly prompt or challenge ordinary people to ask those deeper questions, thus depriving us of the opportunity to understand our own humanity more deeply.

After all, as human beings we are made in the Image of God, and God Himself engaged in leisure. Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel observed that on the seventh day of creation, God completed His work (Genesis 2:2) by bringing menuha. The word is usually translated as “rest.” However, menuha “means much more than withdrawal from labor and exertion, more than freedom from toil, strain, or activity of any kind. Menuha is not a negative concept but something real and intrinsically positive.” In His own act of menuha, God did more than passively rest: He contemplated the whole of existence and said, “It is very good.” [ii]

Our current lack of this spirit of menuha—of leisure—is one of the key reasons for the current state of Western culture. If we cannot rely on our cultural institutions always to provide us with opportunities for leisure, then we must create opportunities for ourselves. Author Greg McKeown writes of the essential task of “deliberately setting aside distraction-free time in a distraction-free space to do absolutely nothing other than think… The faster and busier things get, the more we need to build thinking time into our schedule.  And the noisier things get, the more we need to build quiet reflection spaces in which we can truly focus.”[iii]

Leisure is not a privilege for cultural elites and out-of-touch academics, but a command given to every human being. This is why God’s command to keep the Sabbath holy is extended beyond adults with wealth and property to include also their children, servants, animals, and foreigners within their gates (Exodus 20:8-11). It is also why Christ’s words and actions assert the true purpose of Sabbath: not a list of rules to be slavishly obeyed, but a live-giving experience to be entered into and shared (Matthew 12:1-14, for example).

The command for a leisurely Sabbath is not arbitrary or capricious—it is the reasonable response to a deep need in the human soul, a need that even a rational atheist like Ayn Rand understood and endorsed. To be truly human, each of us needs to step back from the daily toil of life, contemplate the spiritual meaning of existence, and then to say with the Creator, “It is very good.”

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[i] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged.  (New York: Penguin Group, 1999), 65

[ii] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath. (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1951), 22-23

[iii] Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.  (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 68

Jeffrey Kahl

Jeff holds a B.A. degree in history and political science from Ashland University and an M.Div. from Ashland Theological Seminary. He’s a full time pastor and part time scholar. Like C. S. Lewis, he considers himself “a converted pagan living among apostate puritans.”

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