The other day as I was running, I started thinking about life and how, for some—for most in our society—the pursuit of pleasure is extremely important. So important in fact, that it is seen as being the highest goal of one’s life. Carpe Diem! Seize the Day! But what exactly does this even mean? I thought how, if this was my view, if I were to believe that life, this all too brief life, were all that there is, then that would be extremely depressing. Our lives speed by in the blink of an eye. One comment that parents hear so very often is, “it goes by so fast.” It does, it all goes by so very fast. Therefore, if this is it, if this is all that there is, then I should be an extremely depressed individual because life is hard. Fortunately, this is not what I believe.
This thought—how glad I am that the pursuit of pleasure and my personal happiness is not the most important thing in life—was running my though my head the other night at dinner when I told Patrick that Sebastian had been complaining a bit about doing school. Patrick turned to Sebastian and gave him one of the best little “pep talks” that I have ever heard. I found it to be especially wonderful because it was something that I also needed to hear. (When this conversation took place I had just had several days of feeling extremely unmotivated and tired of doing it all.) This is the gist of what he said.
Work as gift!: work is the normal mode of life for most people in most places, from youth to old age, and it always has been; and this is appropriate. Work is one of the primary means God has given us to use the gifts He has given us and to participators in His divine plan for creation. Even in Paradise, there was work!: “The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it” (Gen. 2:15).
This does not mean that work is the highest mode of life. Leisure, especially worship, the highest form of leisure, most perfectly expresses our ultimate purpose and place in God’s order, but in this life we are granted only small foretastes of this eternal bliss, in which our spirits will rest finally and completely in our Lord.
The attitude that work is merely imposition, curse, something ultimately to be gotten through (the assignment, the work day, the work week, the semester) to attain the weekend, the next vacation, retirement—this attitude is poisonous to earthly contentment, not only because it is contrary to the spirit of gratitude that should characterize every Christian life, but more basically because it runs counter to the normal mode of human existence.
Much of this attitude is rather implicit and subconscious than it is explicit and actively cultivated. And it seems to me that a normal childhood (even otherwise entirely healthy childhood) as part of a modern first-world family (even a deeply Christian, culturally-traditional family) breeds this sense of life-as-leisure almost unavoidably. Think of the families you know whose children only read good books, who never watch TV, who spend time playing and exploring outdoors, who are required to help around the house, etc., etc. Quite healthy, to be sure, but even so, those children’s lives are still dominated by leisure, by play—a few chores, a few hours of schoolwork, and the remainder of the day free for play. Don’t believe it? Just compare the lives of any child you know with the lives of children in most times and places—even to the lives of my parents, who were raised on farms and from a very young age were actively engaged in the daily rhythms of workaday life.
Now surely the freedom our children have now to learn through play, through exploration, is a great gift in many respects. Who of us would wish on our children the necessity of “growing up” before they have had the chance to be children? But I work every day with 18- to 22-year-old children from very sensible, even remarkable, families, children with a deep devotion to our Lord and a basic desire to be and to do good. And these same children are handicapped—just as I was and still am—by having lived the first 18 (and more) years of their lives largely in leisure or at least oriented unrelentingly toward leisure (the end of the school day, the end of the school week, etc.). One might think that six or seven hours spent in school and more spent in extracurricular activities is hardly a life of leisure—and in many respects it is not—but I don’t recall school being particularly challenging (quite the opposite, and boring to boot); and my extracurricular activities were hardly work, though they did require some measure of sacrifice.
The end result of all this, which is terribly exacerbated by the typical college experience, even in “good” schools, is young people for whom work is always something to be gotten through or around as quickly and efficiently as possible so that the real business of life—being with friends, “vegging,” partying, sleeping—can be gotten on with and maximized. And it is worth emphasizing that for those persons who have this expectation about life, precisely those who work hardest to maximize their leisure time, for them “leisure” is the least substantial, and is characterized primarily by mere absence of any obligation—we have all felt the call of a television at the end of the day, that powerful attraction to a purely passive “relaxation.” Hence the statistic that the average American watches something like four hours of television a day. Brainless passivity is the highest form of relaxation as it is the furthest from anything requiring work, physical or mental.
The inordinate desire for leisure breeds acedia, that deep existential boredom which is also discouragement vis-à-vis the normal patterns and routines of daily life; Aquinas-via-Pieper tells us that acedia, which is not laziness but is closely akin to it, is most fundamentally a sadness in the face of our high calling. He who suffers acedia, true sloth, “would prefer to be less great in order thus to avoid the obligation of greatness” (Faith, Hope, Love, my emphasis).
Again, this is largely a subconscious orientation or expectation about life, but all the more powerful for that. And it is difficult to see how to combat it, if I am right about what I said above about even the most well-structured childhood in our society. Awareness of the dangers seems to be the first step toward counteracting this powerful psychological force. Secondly, and most importantly, we must demonstrate to our children by our example a healthy gratitude for and joy in work—even a certain ambition, understood as magnanimity, a desire for great things in our normal routines of work—and a concomitant appreciation of authentic leisure.