Sunday, September 20, 2015

Returning to Work, With Leisure in Mind

The first part of this post, begun over three weeks ago (within days its intended completion), is transcribed from a notebook entry I made during the week of our return to school, which always comes with jarring speed at the end of a period of relative calm.  For teachers, this is summer, and as it ended, about a week after I finished reading Josef Pieper’s 1948 essay “On Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” I felt myself synchronously drawn to the need to more deeply contemplate its worth.  

Interesting to note how in 1948. Piper was defining the plight of  “the modern workaholic” as one who is quick to remind others of his drive and ambition as measured in hours spent in labor, who scoffs at the notion of slowing down.  Of this figure, Pieper aptly observes that the compulsion to work is often rooted in the same vapid nature as the compulsion to indolence and laziness; both, Pieper argues, are borne of a disconnect with the philosophical self, that which seeks divine union through contemplation.  

Here it is, relatively unedited, as recorded at the end of the first week back.  Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, there has been no time to edit.  

This time of year, it is helpful to acknowledge that part of what is called for - in addition to the tritely apt reminder to breathe - is some surrender to the momentum of the excitement, because only in surrender to the susurrations of life’s pulse will one be able to find stillness in any motion it fuels.  For many years I have found myself at this point in the year thinking, even in the crux of genuine enthusiasm over the new year, how I am going too fast and must soon find some time to slow down or some essential presence, mindset, or priority - often that which was polished during reflective weeks in the heart of summer - will be lost.   It’s all new beginnings and lengthy to-do lists, a sense of running all day and stopping only to drink water as needed.  Following summer, the shift is jarring.  Although I maintained various responsibilities throughout those two months, I had grown accustomed to moving throughout my days at a pace slow enough to allow for frequent pauses.  I woke up, more or less, when I was ready to.  I made time for exercise because it felt good to do so, and had a positive effect on my day.  I planned meals with care and pleasure.  

Since staff development began, two days ago - in the same week as the start of my university coursework, I find myself often rushing from one place to the next, and waiting for a moment of pause during meetings so that I may run to get water and use the restroom.  I have gone from having responsibility for myself and two others to leading hundreds.  Ideas swim in my head more quickly than I can catch, some inspired (what if we tried _ this year?), others frantic (don’t forget: make copies of __, reply to emails from _,__, and __, finish updating syllabus, set up website… the list goes on). The to-do list, though essential at such times, has a way of regenerating at such speed that it can seem menacing in a certain light.

I wish to cast it in another light.  For sanity’s sake, yes;  more precisely, for the sake of preserving intact, some of my the most admirable traits of my human inheritance - namely, capacity to wonder, reflect, search for meaning, and let my mouth fall open in awe.  Rushing with one’s head down is a sure way to detach from these  Over a decade in the profession is more than enough to have taught me that  a sense of frantic rushing and a of not having enough time to tend to all needs, are features indigenous to any territory in the vast landscape of one’s life as it may be lived in any meaningful service.  Small tasks must be written down before they fall out of the head, and large tasks - the sort that would ordinarily be at the forefront of the mind - must be written down as a reminder, lest the hold on these becomes loosened and they are lost in the current of endless activity.  Such tragic loss might easily go unnoticed; for while it happens, one is, after all, working.  

For these reasons, what serendipity to have found Pieper’s manifesto on the necessity of preserving leisure exceedingly timely.  Prior to reading it, I had an incomplete understanding of the word.  

For the Greeks, “not-leisure” was the word for the world of everyday work; and not only to indicate its “hustle and bustle,” but the work itself… “the Greeks would probably not have understood our maxims about “work for the sake of work”… Could this also imply that people in our day no longer have direct access to leisure?
This section certainly gives pause, and the effect is magnified with the observation that, “The Greek word for leisure is the origin of the Latin shola, German schule, English school.”  I think, how much the opposite has come to be true.  For those who are “good students,” scholastic excellence is associated with “hard work,” and for those detached from the process, school may as well be synonymous with boredom.  

This post emerged from a desire to remember that human dignity and beauty live in the stillness at the center of work, and are lost in the hustle and bustle.  And yet, when one does not have the luxury of making one’s own hours, the only reliable and consistent way to do this is to stop waiting for the noise to die down and to cultivate a capacity to create some inner stillness amid the wild current, and to find silence in a crowded room of shouters. As I write this, I picture a pair of noise-canceling headphones placed deliberately around the most sacred center of one’s being. 

I almost wrote, “center of the interior self,” before catching an inherent flaw in the phrase.  While the image seemed useful - a small, highly concentrated shadow self within the larger body - the concept may do more harm than good.  In our ceaseless effort to order and sort elements of our environment and experience so as to better understand, we are often much too quick to create dichotomies:  noise/silence, company/solitude, work/life, activity/stillness. Such habits of mind create mental divisions where none need to be, like superfluous walls in a room intended to be open. When it is crowded, I may long for silence, but I cannot access it through the wall.  When active, my actions tend to be meaningful and the level of activity sustainable only when anchored to a place of stillness.

Enter Pieper’s thesis:

Culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and consequently living link with the cultus, with divine worship.

Culture… is the quintessence of all the natural goods of the world and of those gifts and qualities which, while belonging to man, lie beyond the immediate sphere of his needs and wants.  All that is good in this sense, all man’s gifts and faculties, are not necessarily useful in a practical way; though there is no denying that they belong to a truly human life, not strictly speaking necessary, even though he could not do without them.

…freedom, in its innermost circle indeed, is philosophy…

While at work- meaning, honoring some responsibility to act in a capacity of service to others or a larger cause, it can be easy to feel estranged from some of the more sustaining aspects of nature, be these relationships, art, reflection, or a simple quiet pause, 

This will happen for as long as I feel that what I love to do is necessarily separate from that to which I am called to do. For, as Pieper reminds,  as long as Leisure is equated with “vacation,” “summer,” “weekend,” and perceived as antithetical to “work,” it will remain elusive.  At work time, leisure will be anxiously missed, and on “off” time, one will be too frayed to experience the stillness at its center.  One will be constantly aware of the way that my time with it is ending, which makes it difficult if not impossible to appreciate.  

Here are some passages that linger from this week’s reading:

Up until this time… the provence of “intellectual enterprise” tended to be looked upon as a kind of paradise, where nobody needed to work; at the heart of this privileged province lay philosophy, something at furthest remove from the working world.

… Now, the takeover of this region of intellectual action… by the realm of “total work” forms only the most recent phase of a whole series of conquests made by the “imperial figure” of the “worker

...The Greek word for leisure is the origin of the Latin shola, German schule, English school.

According not only to ancient philosophers, but also to medieval thinkers, understanding may come in two ways: one comes from being, or the “purely receptive ‘looking…” to which Heraclitus referred as the “Listening-in to the being of things.” This type of knowing corresponds to what the medieval intellectuals would have called intellectus, which corresponds to “the ability of ‘simply looking’… to which the truth presents itself as a landscape presents itself to the eye. Contrast this with ratio, “the power of discursive thought, of searching and re-searching, abstracting, refining, and concluding…”

“All knowing involves both,” and yet there appears to be some built in bias towards the “earned via work” sort of knowing over the “simply looking.” This, as Pieper reminds, appears to be a a noteworthy sign of the times. In discussing this  cultural tendency towards “over-valuation of the difficult,” 

Pieper observes:

The innermost meaning of this over-emphasis on effort appears to be this: that man mistrusts everything that is without effort; that in good conscience he can own only what he himself has reached through painful effort; that he refuses to let himself be given anything.

I suspect that I am not the only contemporary reader who feels a slight pang of shame at this.  While I like to believe that I am not yet near the stance of “workaholic,” it is also true that many a week goes by in a rush, and somewhere in the middle of such rushes, I become  hyper-focused on “getting things done.” Although such bouts of frantic activity rarely come without some longing for slower moments, I have been guilty of holding my sleep deprivation up like a badge of honor, as if my slavish determination to “get things done” meant something on a moral level.

Maybe it does, but probably it does not, and I thank Joseph Pieper for issuing a needed (apparently, over five decades ago) call to be mindful of the ways that we are conditioned in the modern world, to freely spend energy before noticing how doing so can leave little of time or anything else needed to celebrate the sacred space that makes human energy meaningful.