Why Leisure is a Necessity, Not a Luxury

Jeannie Ewing

Why Leisure is a Necessity, Not a Luxury

“I’m just too busy.” 
“I can’t find the time today. Sorry.” 

“There’s just so much going on.” 

You’ve spoken these words, and so have I, maybe thoughtlessly or in passing. The I’m-too-busy bit has become part of modern parlance, a near cliché. When I hear it, I cringe and think, Aren’t we all busy? Busyness seems like just an excuse to avoid what we don’t want to do or to give ourselves a pass when something seems inconvenient or discomfiting. 

Unfortunately, busyness is upheld in our western culture like a golden calf: it’s a pseudo-god we’ve created, because we look at people who are more laidback as lazy. The word leisure itself conjures up images in our minds of the surfer, the beach bum, the book worm, or the couch potato. We equate leisure with pleasure, something that seems more like a luxury none of us can afford in our frenzied milieu. 

Leisure is Not Laziness or a Luxury

St. Thomas Aquinas defined the virtue of right recreation as eutrapelia. That’s right – it’s a virtue. That means that leisure, as God intended it, is not simply lounging around in our pjs or for the elite, high-class echelon. It’s actually virtuous to engage in recreation that restores the soul and rejuvenates the body and mind. 

I come from generations of hardworking German immigrants. Growing up, my dad always joked, “Hard work is the reward for hard work.” I admired his work ethic and aspired to be like him one day. It seemed to me that constantly accomplishing something and checking off items from my interminable to-do list offered a deep satisfaction and tangible evidence that the minutes and hours were worth something. 

Now I am a mother of four young children, two of whom have different diagnoses. I learned the value of waiting in a roundabout and painful manner: from sitting in medical facilities and doctor’s offices with Sarah, our middle daughter, several days a week these past six years of her little life. 

At first, an undefined restlessness stirred in me. It was a visceral reaction, something that almost burst inside when I was sitting in a chair for hours on end. I thought I was going mad. But I learned, through God’s good grace, that these moments of waiting were actually opportunities for me to enter into a period of rest, to activate the thinker in me, or to meditate on Scripture. 

Sabbath and the Necessity of Resting

“On the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation” (Gn. 2:2-3). 

My oldest two kids hate naptime. It’s not that we force them to sleep (we can’t), but we know the importance of taking a break in the middle of the day to regroup and settle down (like a siesta). Felicity, my oldest, always whines, “Moooom, but I don’t neeeeeed to rest!” Like an old-school CD player that skips, we end up having the same conversation (I should record it): “You don’t need to sleep, but you do need to rest. Even God rested after He made creation.” 

The kids don’t quite understand this last part of our lecture. Attempting to make eye contact with their quizzical gaze, I ask them, “Did God need to rest?” They nod yes. “No,” I answer. “God doesn’t need anything. He rested to show us how we need to rest. He was setting an example for us.” 

Herein lies the lesson for us all: God rested. Therefore, who do we imagine ourselves to be to keep running around without a respite? We aren’t the Energizer bunny who keeps “going and going and going.” Or at least we shouldn’t be. We are finite beings, and our bodies and minds need a break on a regular basis. 

That’s why I think we should begin by reclaiming the Sabbath. Make Sunday a sacred day like it was when you were a kid. Remember the days when no retailers were open? It was just hospitals and pharmacies. Forget the 24/7 Wal-marts and restaurants! We knew that Sunday was somehow set apart, and we planned our lives accordingly. 

If you aren’t sure how to incorporate more rest and leisure into your life, begin with Sunday. Make it a day where you focus on prayer, spending time with your family, reading, and even taking a nap! On Sundays, we like to go to Mass right away, enjoy a big family breakfast, come home and spend some time playing a game or taking a walk to the park, then having a nice midday meal with our extended family and taking a nap in the afternoon. That’s it.  

Will you feel guilty when you aren’t “doing” anything that feels productive? Initially, yes. But, as the habit is cultivated over time, you will notice a difference in the way you approach your work week. That one day makes all the difference.  

Working Versus Waiting: The Value of the Hiatus

One final thought about the importance of leisure is the concept that we need to evaluate our philosophy about working versus waiting. In my book, Waiting with Purpose, I write at length about this. For now, I will share with you this: if the highest good we attain is achieving – in the sense of collecting accolades, accruing high dollars from a lucrative career, or accumulating expensive material possessions – then it’s time to start thinking about receiving.  

God gives us so much spiritual goodness when we are in seasons of waiting. Yes, we dread them, because they are contrary to our human nature, but if we allow ourselves to enter into them with questions, like, “God, what are you asking of me in this time?” or “How do you want me to wait fruitfully?” we will glean much wisdom and, in turn, deepen our spiritual lives. 

The World Needs Dreamers, Thinkers, and Creatives

The truth is this: the world needs the thinkers, the dreamers, the poets, the priests and prophets, advisers and counselors, artists and creatives. We live in desperate times, in which our brains are often hijacked by incessant information being hurled at us like an unexpected hailstorm. Most of us are just moving day to day, without really pondering our life’s purpose or the grander realities of beauty and goodness all around us. 

Those who understand and utilize the order of right recreation as leisure are the ones who remind us to stop doing and start looking, to pause long enough to enjoy this life we’ve been given, and to know that God is moving in and through us every day.  

If you are a creative or a thinker, the world needs you now more than ever. Give it what it doesn’t yet know it needs.