The Demise of Leisure
River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, July 9, 2000
Rev. Scott W. Alexander
"Have Leisure and know that I am God."
Psalm XLVI: 10
The spiritual timing of my preaching to you this week on the topic of leisure (and the absolute importance I believe it has in our living) could not be more perfect. First of all, of course, it is the middle of July, summer vacation season when the pace of life within the beltway visibly and mercifully slows. But even more, Collins and I are just back from a few delicious and leisurely days in Wisconsin ... most of which we spent on my brother and his wife's 38-foot sailboat, cruising with them each day (amidst the calming green waters and rocky-yet-verdant islands of Lake Michigan, as the wind would take us) ... eating deliciously simple foods each evening after we anchored in some protective cove (yes, with a little cold Chardonnay to wash things down) ... and then falling asleep below deck each night (lulled into the embrace of sleep by the sashaying waves and swells) that invited me to rest more deeply that I have for many months. I'm sure precisely how the primitive process of sailing (that is raising a simple cloth sail to catch the wind, tacking back and forth as you tell the tiller and the boat where you want to go...and all the other simple pleasures of being on board) works its magic, but there is something utterly calming, spacious and healing about this ancient mode of travel. The process of being "under sail" somehow invites you (almost demands even) that you let go of the clutter in your mind and the tension in your body. As the hull of the boat slapped against the waves moved its gentle way through the waters, I found myself slowed down into a state of leisure that invited both calm and contemplation. While I have never seen anything written about this (and did not include a chapter on this activity in my last book on everyday spiritual practice) I think it could be argued that sailing is a kind of spiritual practice - in that it somehow magically invites us into that leisurely place of mind and body when we can re-attune ourselves to life's most elemental and healing rhythms. In any case, over recent days spent sailing, I found myself relaxing in a kind of healing languidness that I would like to more regularly experience in my life ... and I'll bet every sailor in the room knows EXACTLY what I am talking about.
But there is a problem here, dear friends ... not with sailing (of course) nothing could be more perfect - there is a problem with us and our culture. In spite of the delight and healing I have been blessed to personally experience over recent days while sailing with my family, I believe most of us Americans (despite all our obvious freedoms, privileges and material wealth) have a serious problem when it comes to creating and protecting enough genuine leisure time in our lives. Simply put, we are addicted (some of us severely!) to too much work, too much labor, accomplishment and hurry, and are not setting aside enough time in our lives for sailing and other soul-satisfying leisurely pursuits.
I believe it is irrefutable that there is a serious (and spiritually dangerous) decline in leisure in American culture at this time. Over recent decades (as communication and information technologies have exploded to provide for remarkable new efficiencies ... and our economy has become so robust and productive) the widespread assumption has been that our great economic success and remarkable technological tools would liberate all of us to structure and experience more leisure (or "down") time in our lives. This was a logical assumption to make - our advancing skill in getting more done quickly and efficiently should free all of us up to find a healthy balance in our lives between the triumvirate of human activities that have long been understood to make for a healthy and natural human life: 1) work, and 2) sleep, and 3) free time (including leisure) - work, sleep and leisure. But this has not happened. As Jay Walljasper recently put it in the Utne Reader,
More and more it feels like our lives have turned into a grueling race toward a finish line we never reach.... It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. As a kid in the 60's I remember hearing that one of the biggest challenges of the future would be what to do with all our time. Amazing inventions were going to free up great stretches of our days for what really matters: friends, family, fun. But just the opposite has happened ... [we hurry through our lives with little leisure.]
Here are just a few facts. Over recent years, Americans, perhaps the hardest working and most productive people on the face of the earth are working harder and harder. Juliet Schor, in her book The Over-Worked American - The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, writes:
In the last twenty years the amount of time Americans have spent on their jobs has risen steadily. Each year the change is small, amounting [now, upwards] of nine hours, or slightly more than one additional day of work [each week]. The accumulated increase over two decades is substantial....The growth of work time did not occur as a result of public debate [she observes]. There has been little attention from government, academic, civic organizations [or unions]. For the most part, the issue has been off the agenda, a non-choice, [a silent shift]."
It may startle you to hear (as it did me when I recently heard this statistic) that the average American family (husband, wife, and kids) has approximately 9 days of vacation together a year (just 9 days ... that's a little less than two weeks off when you add in the weekends). Compare that with European families who get 8 weeks off every summer, in addition to other holidays throughout the year! Perhaps some of you saw the report on the Fox Evening News recently suggesting that most Americans suffer from a new and dangerous kind of stressed VDD, "Vacation Deficit Disorder." Surely everyone in this room personally knows someone who routinely works 10, 12, 14 or more hours a week - lawyers, doctors, computer consultants, white house operatives, storekeepers, even ministers (!) - many Americans work far more than the standard 8 hour day which was established to protect workers for injury and abuse nearly a century ago. The bottom line is clear: Americans have more work and less leisure than they used to, and there is no reversal of this unhealthy trend in sight.
I would like to suggest (as have many others who have written about human health, happiness and well-being) that in order for any human being to have a well-rounded, meaningful, and healthy life, one needs (on a daily basis!) to have more or less equal amounts of those three fundamental human activities I have already mentioned ... something like 8 hours of work (focused engagement in the business of living, whether at a factory, office, traveling or home), 8 hours of sleep (you all know the physical body demands it), and 8 hours of free time , including leisure (time - and this is crucial - TIME TO DO AND BE - with self and friends, hobbies and loved ones- AS YOU WILL, free from pressures, expectations and demands of one's employer or society). My Merriam Webster dictionary defines leisure as, "freedom, or spare time, provided by the cessation of activities ... free time as the result of temporary exemption from work or duties ... time at one's command that is free of engagements or responsibilities ... one's own time, at one's convenience ... rest."
Now I think it's important (in this culture which already has an excessive work ethic which leads us to admire work and look down upon idleness) that we not equate leisure with laziness. I think it important that leisure should not generally be thought of as activities like stretching out on a sofa for most of the day dozing (semi-comatose) while you sort of follow the plots of soap operas (though occasionally watching television surely can, from time to time, be regarded as a legitimate and useful leisure activity). I would generally have you think of leisure (the kind we need much more of for our spiritual and emotional health) as time when we (again "at our own command," at our own bidding, not that of someone else) stay engaged and focused with people and things which we personally value and enjoy. Leisure engagement and focus (unlike the engagement and focus we experience while working) is purely regulated by what we as human beings choose for ourselves. My colleague Will Saunders suggests if we are to be healthy and balanced human beings:
We need to ... let go of work and its corollary, buying and spending ... we need to relieve ourselves of activities that cause worry - paying bills, preparing tax returns, making lists of things to do in the coming week ... we need to 'waste' time on the pleasure of being with friends and family, the delight of simply enjoying the world ... [we need to set aside time] to renew our relationship with nature, God and others.
Let me give just one example. Right now, in my leisure time just before bed, I am reading a book about cod (which Thelma and Curt Adams gave me recently after we discussed the demise of New England's fishing industry at some social gathering). So your minister (a learned man of all things esoteric and spiritual) is spending some of his free time learning about fish ... codfish - its biology and reproductive habits ... its history and habitat ... about the cultures and fishermen who have variously related to and relied upon the cod ... and what's being done to save it from extinction. It's a charming and readable little book, and one of the best things about reading it is that I never expect or want to use anything I learn in these pages for any practical or ministerial purpose! Leisure pursuits (while they may accidentally help us to become wiser, more well-rounded, smarter and more productive persons) really must be engaged not for their potential usefulness (thereby becoming in effect a kind of work) but rather simply for their own calming and satisfying sake! So leisure looks like reading a book about cod ... or spending languid hours tending your stamp collection ... or taking the family out for a laconic picnic along the Potomac ... or strolling through some favorite section of the Smithsonian for the ump-teenth time ... or going birding in that favorite wetland of yours down along the Chesapeake ... or aimlessly surfing the web for conversation, shopping or information ... or even taking a delicious and dreamy afternoon nap without setting an alarm!
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the Jewish religious leader who is responsible for the "Free Time/Free People" affirmation which I read to you just before the sermon, said (when I had the opportunity met with him and other UU religious leaders a few weeks ago), "Having time for leisure goes to the heart of what it means to be a human being." I quote again from the statement, "Human beings need time for self-reflective spiritual growth, for loving family and communal sharing ... free time [for] family, community and spiritual growth. " People need time just to simply be - in all of life's elemental simplicity.
Listen to essayist Peter Marin describe what feels to me a perfectly holy everyday example of leisure.
Sometimes, somehow, almost as if by accident, we get things right. Now at noon, we sit on the grass beneath this tall tree, having within the rich fruits of countless harvests - wine, bread, cheeses, fruit, chocolate. I look at the grass, the sky, the passersby, my companions -and my heart fills with a joy equal to any more obviously mystical or religious sentiment I have ever had. There is nothing beyond the absolute beauty of the transience of this day - this wind, this ease, this flesh. It arises from the heart in answer to a human presence, and one understands - if only for a moment - what it would mean to be free. It is a passion beyond all possessiveness, a fierce love of the world, and a fierce joy in the transience of things made beautiful by their impermanence. I would not trade this day for heaven ... no matter what name we call it by. Or rather, I think if there is a heaven, it is something like this ... a pleasure taken in life, this gift of one's comrades at ease momentarily under the trees, and the taste of satisfaction and the promise of grace, alive in one's hands and mouth.
Poet Carl Sandburg, in a short poem entitled "Happiness," also speaks similarly to the disarmingly simple blessing that is true leisure:
I asked professors who teach the meaning of happiness to tell me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the Desplains River
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and children and a keg of beer and an accordion.
This, then, (and a thousand other blessedly impractical, non-efficient and purely enjoyable human activities) is what leisure should look and feel like. Leisure (again ... precisely because it is what WE INDIVIDUALLY CHOOSE to do and be in our own time) relaxes, restores, recharges and rejuvenates us, and gives us energy and focus for when we return (as we always eventually must) to the work and labor we do for and by others.
[And a quick-but-important aside here ... when I talk about the spiritual necessity of preserving 8 hours of free time in our lives (when we are not working or sleeping) I have no illusion that in our busy urban lives most-or-even-much of that time will be successfully set aside for truly leisurely pursuits. Much of our so-called free time is eaten up by decidedly non-leisurely, obligatory things like: our commutes to and from work (which as you sadly know can be 2 hours or more a day here in DC) ... driving the kids to soccer practice or an aging parent to the doctor ... and necessary domestic duties like cooking dinner, washing dishes and clothes, and cleaning house. I think most of us would regard ourselves as lucky if we could manage to find (say) 3 or 4 hours a day for leisurely, restorative activities.]
But back to my main point here. As I have already observed, hard-working, fast-paced Americans aren't structuring enough soul-nurturing leisure into their lives. While it is true that some employers are pressuring or forcing American workers to labor too long and too hard (more on this unacceptable moral outrage in a moment) I would suggest to you that it is mostly ourselves who are responsible for the demise of leisure in our lives). Look, as your minister, I have lived rather closely (and I would dare to say with reasonable discernment) amongst you for just about two years now. I have been paying attention to the quality, content, flow (AND CHOICES) of your lives, and it would be my (I believe unassailable and irrefutable) observation that few (if any of you) are presently succeeding in balancing your lives very well between 1) work, 2) sleep, 3) routine life obligations (like commuting, cooking and caring for the kids) and 4) soul-satisfying leisure. It's almost as if we busy, inside- the-beltway types are addicted to doing, getting, going and working (as opposed to being, reflecting, sauntering, pondering and communing). Many of us seem to be falling victim to what one social commentator has called HURRY SICKNESS, a feeling of emptiness, fret, distraction and dissatisfaction which wells up within us because the frenetic pace of our lives never permits us to sit back and just be human in the way human beings were designed to be. My first title for this sermon was, "Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!" And that is what I would like to say to you all, for your spiritual well-being. You are a human being, not a robotic work machine. Every day, every week, every month, you need time (calm and substantive time) to step back from work and duty to reflect and relax and rejuvenate. So don't just do something, stand there! - your happiness (maybe even your survival as a person) may depend on your ability to create genuine, healing leisure in your life routines.
It seems to me that if we are to reverse the dangerous demise of leisure (in both our individual lives and in the culture at large), change must occur in two venues.
1). First, as the "FREE TIME/FREE PEOPLE" statement suggests, we must immediately and insistently begin to change public attitudes and public policy about work and worker's rights. Just as in the early days of the industrial revolution (when society turned its collective attention to the many abuses of the workplace), as a fast-paced, technologically advanced, prosperous society, we must once again say (in both law and spirit) to workers and employers alike, "every worker has the right to a balanced healthy life with reasonable, limited, humane work hours!" This may mean we will need to establish new laws and workplace policies about long hours, unreasonable expectations, involuntary overtime, and other employer practices which implicitly or explicitly oblige workers to overwork. It certainly means America as a whole needs to return to the time-tested wisdom of the 8-hour work day for most workers. [And another quick aside here: I believe that controlling worker's hours ultimately benefits the employer (and is therefore in the employers ultimate self-interest ... in that the quality of work dramatically rises in workers who are encouraged and enabled to live balanced and healthy lives. This is certainly true for me in my job here at River Road ... if I fall into a pattern of overwork, the quality, depth and focus of my ministry amongst you visibly declines ... I limit my work hours in order to do my job, and to do my job well ... and I suspect the same is true for most, if not all of you!] If we are ever to change things, it means that many of us will need to speak up and act up for ourselves in our workplaces, and say "enough is enough," (and I fully realize that some of you may feel profoundly trapped in industries or careers where entrenched work expectations are way beyond reason). None of this, of course, is going to be easy! No one should under-estimate how difficult it will be (in this free market economy long driven by the excessive American work ethic) to bring about such a shift in public attitude and policy. But I believe together we must all do what we can to change public attitudes and policies to begin returning a healthy measure of leisure and free time to our lives ... the very quality of our lives and our souls hang in the balance.
2). But we cannot, of course, just rely on a shift in public attitudes and public polices to fix this problem (and reverse the decline of leisure and the demise of balance in our lives). Trust me ... no amount of new labor laws or workplace policies is ultimately going to protect most of us in this room this morning from overwork and "hurry sickness." Most of us need to make a change "IN HERE" [SCOTT POINTS TO HIS OWN CHEST] if the quality and balance and health in our own lives is to ever come to pass. While our work situations and expectations vary widely (and again, I do not want to minimize how much some of you feel trapped by nearly crazy work expectations), I will nonetheless assert that (ultimately) we each have both the freedom (and the responsibility) to make decisions (albeit sometimes tough and costly ones) that will enable and ensure that we have (constructed around us) lives of balance, joyfulness and health. I pray you - good folks - do not regard leisure as some superfluous or optional dimension of your living. If you are to be fully and joyfully human (which is much of what being a Unitarian Universalist is all about), you need (and here's a bit of irony) you need to DISCIPLINE yourself to find and cultivate leisure in your daily living!
In closing, I will remind all of us of one of the wisest sayings known to humanity.... I have quoted it before. I don't know who said it, but it shouts with blunt truth, perspective and clarity: "No one ever says on his or her deathbed, 'Gee, I wish I had spent more time down at the office.'"
Look, my dear folks, life is precious and short. You were not put on this earth to be a joyless slave to your job, work or careers. You were put on this earth to be a full and fine human being. Work is good, but leisure is holy. Please, protect the gift of life that has been so miraculously given to you. Insist that your life has the balance that is necessary for robust and joyful humanness. Measure your days, for in that measuring, heaven and happiness await ... nothing less than heaven and happiness.