Why We Lost Leisure: David Steindl-Rast on Purposeful Work, Play, and How to Find Meaning in the Magnificent Superfluities of LifeBy: Maria Popova
“A piece of music doesn’t come to an end when its purpose is accomplished. It has no purpose, strictly speaking. It is the playful unfolding of meaning.”
“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive,” Seneca wrote in his sublime meditation on the shortness of life, adding that when we reap these contemplative fruits of leisure, all the ages that have passed before ours are added to our own — “unless we are very ungrateful.” Two millennia later, in 1926, philosopher Bertrand Russell reflected on the urgent need to undo the Industrial Revolution’s legacy of equating an efficient life with a life worth living when he lamented: “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” In the centuries since Seneca and decades since Russell, we have forgotten more and more how to imbue leisure with the kind of gratefulness that makes possible its true purpose of contemplation — instead, we treat leisure as a luxury, as another good to be gotten from the hamster wheel of material achievement.
In one particularly pause-giving portion of his Essential Writings (public library), the Benedictine monk and interfaith dialogue activist David Steindl-Rast — best known for championing the practice of gratefulness, defined as “the inner gesture of giving meaning to our life by receiving life as a gift” — addresses with great gentleness and great firmness our warped modern understanding of leisure:
Leisure … is not the privilege of those who can afford to take time; it is the virtue of those who give to everything they do the time it deserves to take.
Our culture betrays this in one aspect especially — the toxic divide between “work” and “life.” I often find myself saddened when people talk of “work-life balance” — a notion that implies we need to counter the unpleasantness we endure in order to make a living with the pleasurable activities we long to do in order to feel alive. Steindl-Rast makes a vitalizing case for reclaiming this ennobling purpose of leisure not outside the context of work but within it:
To recover a healthy understanding of leisure is to come a long way toward understanding contemplation. But few words we use are as misunderstood as the word “leisure.” This shows itself right away when we speak of work and leisure as a pair of opposites. Are the two poles of activity really work and leisure? If this were so, how could we speak of leisurely work? It would be a blatant contradiction. We know, however, that working leisurely is no contradiction at all. In fact, work ought to be done with leisure, if it is to be done well.
What then is the opposite of work? It is play. These are the two poles of activity: work and play.
Finding purposeful work is, of course, perhaps the surest way of resolving this paralyzing polarization — but Steindl-Rast cautions against confusing purpose with productivity, pointing to meaning as the differentiating factor:
Whenever you work, you work for some purpose. If it weren’t for that purpose, you’d have better things to do than work. Work and purpose are so closely connected that your work comes to an end, once your purpose is achieved. Or how are you going to continue fixing your car once it is fixed?…
In play, all the emphasis falls on the meaning of your activity… Play needs no purpose. That is why play can go on and on as long as players find it meaningful. After all, we do not dance in order to get somewhere. We dance around and around. A piece of music doesn’t come to an end when its purpose is accomplished. It has no purpose, strictly speaking. It is the playful unfolding of meaning that is there in each of its movements, in every theme, every passage: a celebration of meaning. Pachelbel’s Canon is one of the magnificent superfluities of life. Every time I listen to it, I realize anew that some of the most superfluous things are the most important for us because they give meaning to our human lives.
When our purposeful work also is meaningful, we will have a good time in the midst of it. Then we will not be so eager to get it over with. If you spend only minutes a day getting this or that over with, you may be squandering days, weeks, years in the course of a lifetime. Meaningless work is a form of killing time. But leisure makes time come alive. The Chinese character for being busy is also made up of two elements: heart and killing. A timely warning. Our very heartbeat is healthy only when it is leisurely.
The heart is a leisurely muscle. It differs from all other muscles. How many push-ups can you make before the muscles in your arms and stomach get so tired that you have to stop? But your heart muscle goes on working for as long as you live. It does not get tired, because there is a phase of rest built into every single heartbeat. Our physical heart works leisurely. And when we speak of the heart in a wider sense, the idea that life-giving leisure lies at the very center is implied. Never to lose sight of that central place of leisure in our life would keep us youthful.
C.S. Lewis echoed this beautifully in his memorable meditation on friendship, where he argued that things “like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself” have no survival value but are among “those things which give value to survival.” Reframed in this way, leisure reveals itself as precisely one of those things — not a luxury of life, but an essential vitalizer of it.
In the remainder of his Essential Writings, Steindl-Rast goes on to explore how the practice of gratefulness — which is different from gratitude — enriches our experience of such vital, often misapprehended and misapplied aspects of the human experience as silence, love, and hope. Complement it with Parker J. Palmer on the art of inner wholeness and Alan Watts on how to live with presence, then treat yourself to Steindl-Rast’s wonderfully grounding and elevating TED talk on gratefulness: