By Bren Dubay
From my youth, this line has stuck with me — “To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation …” Biff Loman says this to his brother, Happy, in the play Death of a Salesman.
It invoked a vow from me that I’d never do work that made me miserable, work that required the use of my vacation to recover from it. Arthur Miller’s play made me think about the American Dream and about how so many people I knew were not happy doing the work they were doing. I read the play at a very formative time and what it said about work had an impact. As my life has gone forward, I have made certain my work is enjoyable, not something to suffer. I now find myself pondering the other part of that sentence — “the two-week vacation.” I’ll substitute the word “leisure” for vacation.
Did you know that a long, long time ago before modernity, before the Industrial Revolution, leisure was considered the basis of culture? To the Greek mind, leisure was rooted in the word schola (this is where the word school comes) and leisure was “a place where one took time to embrace reality; a time to sit before the beauty of creation.” It was a time for contemplation and study, a time to think about one’s own existence, why one is here, and who one is meant to be.
The Agricultural Revolution allowed for leisure. Instead of living a nomadic life chasing their food, humans discovered seeds and the rhythm of planting, waiting, and harvesting. Leisure is active waiting. Leisure is not the absence of work, but rather the active counterpart of work.
Since the Industrial Revolution, there has been a growing disconnect. Work has become not only what we do, but who we are. Work is all about being productive; we judge ourselves by what we make, what we do, what we can accomplish. Leisure has become a time for recovering from all the productivity and overactivity so we can get back to work and be more productive and active all over again. Often we don’t even take the time to step back to look at our work, contemplate it, and declare, “It is good.”
During the pandemic, there has been more time to take a look at work and at leisure. I’ve thought about the image of God fashioning the world [work] then resting on the seventh day [leisure]. Did God take a nap or veg out? Not that there’s anything wrong with taking a nap or vegging out from time to time, but leisure is not napping. Leisure is an end in itself, a time to dwell on the beauty of creation, to read a challenging book, to be carried away listening to a soaring symphony, to catch one’s breath at a stunning work of art, a time to step back to admire the work that one has done. It is a time to worship and pray, the highest forms of leisure. It is a time to contemplate goodness and allow that goodness and all these meaningful activities to re-create us.
Koinonia is in the midst of the harvest. The work is hard and yet, I see us taking the time for leisure in its true sense. Some lean on the equipment, others sprawl on the ground. We stare off into the distance soaking in the beauty. Any talking gives way to silence … except for the birds. We listen to their songs. The water we drink and the snacks we munch taste more delicious than any drink or snack that came before. We survey the beauty of the land, the good work of our hands. We look across the pecan orchards or at a fellow worker across the table in the pecan sorting room or next to us in the bakery or in shipping and say, “It is good.” This is leisure re-creating us.
Both work and leisure are needed. We are not meant to suffer our work. We are meant for leisure that lasts for far more than two weeks a year. So I urge you and me to take time today, this week, this month to survey the work of our hands and the work being done around us. May we take the time to call it good for it truly is. Incorporate leisure into our lives as a practice. Not an absence of work, but a presence of dedicated time to soak in the good all around us. Let us make room for both work and leisure as partners in creating a meaningful life.