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We Weren’t Made for Endless Work

It only took a moment. The smartphone was somewhere in the grass, forgotten. Our hands and jeans were covered in smears of purple and green sidewalk chalk. My two-year-old daughter and I were busy drawing roads and buildings on a square of pavement—here a library, there a post office, with our house around the corner.

At some point, I looked up and realized that all the disorder of the world had faded for a moment, hidden in the lines of this imaginary town. It’s been another chaotic news week, full of revelations sordid and concerning and tragic. That’s left my smartphone tugging my mind towards the next burst of “breaking news.” I know it shouldn’t. I want to overcome the chains of incessant communication. But it’s easy to step into the flow without even realizing it.

So here, in this quiet space on a Wednesday morning, I decided to intentionally forget. And we played with sidewalk chalk instead.

The terms “intentionality” and “mindfulness” get tossed around a lot these days. We are all trying to find the cure for our condition, one in which attention-deficit disorders and low- or high-level stress plague our everyday existence. Anxiety disorders affect [1] 40 million adults in the United States—18.1 percent of the population.


In this environment, many seek to refocus their brains. We need intentionality, a mindfulness or mental discipline that enables us to be fully present and focused on the moment. The ability to learn a new skill, read a weighty work of philosophy, or lose ourselves in prayer depends on such a mental posture.

It is important, I think, that our attempts at intentionality do not just involve setting our smartphones or computers aside and “accomplishing” things in real time. Often, when we aren’t staring at screens, we are engaging in some form of busywork. We spend non-distracted moments in a frenzy of activity: doing dishes, folding laundry, paying bills, et cetera. And while all these things are engaging and important, they should not and do not contain the whole of contemplation.

Josef Pieper suggested that our fixation on busyness stems from modern man’s suspicion of grace: “man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.”

Leisure, in contrast, “is only possible when a man is at one with himself, when he acquiesces in his own being…[leisure] implies (in the first place) an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being ‘busy,’ but letting things happen.”

Children are experts at leisure. While deeper sorts of contemplation and reverie are often unavailable to them, they are specialists at being (as Pieper puts it) “open to everything…free and easy themselves.” They are also naturally good at doing things not for some larger utilitarian goal, but rather for their own sakes.

That is why, even if playing with sidewalk chalk wouldn’t fit Josef Pieper’s definition of leisure, childlike activity with my daughter often seems perfectly suited for a posture of givenness and joy, leisure and love. Amid a busy culture that demands I do something and a vicious news cycle that demands I say something, my toddler reminds me to humble myself to the cadence and rhythm of this beautiful world, and to seek refreshment in the true, the good, and the beautiful. Imaginative play—with dolls or Legos, trains or “dress-ups”—reminds us silly, self-absorbed adults of that which is beyond our own cares, where everything is fresh and exciting and new every morning.

It is easy to slip into distractedness and inattentiveness if we are not cultivating daily rhythms that emphasize the present and the real over the possible and the virtual. That’s why Sherry Turkle suggests that we carve out “sacred spaces” in our day in which we set aside our devices and seek to truly focus on each other. The dinner table is a good space for this—but I also feel that I could do a better job abandoning my devices for intentional daily spurts of play with my daughter. Otherwise, leisure is too quickly interrupted by a text or email or phone call.

We don’t always like to hear that rest and “play” can nourish our souls. Owning up to that truth would require slowing down and doing “unimportant” things with no material, measurable benefit. It would require acknowledging our need for grace, and our own inability to accept the world as gift. But our existence was never meant to fixate around work—at least not if the ancients are to be believed. Leisure makes us human.

So go on a walk tomorrow and search for “tiny perfect things [2].” Play a board game after the dinner dishes are put away. Read a favorite book aloud. Pull out the sidewalk chalk.

Whatever you do, rest and delight in the present—knowing that work and emails and social media and news (or whatever else absorbs your brain) can wait.

“Because wholeness is what man strives for, the power to achieve leisure is one of the fundamental powers of the human soul,” Pieper suggests. “Like the gift for contemplative absorption in the things that are, and like the capacity of the spirit to soar in festive celebration, the power to know leisure is the power to overstep the boundaries of the workaday world and reach out to superhuman, life-giving existential forces that refresh and renew us before we turn back to our daily work.”

May we all find this refreshment and renewal in days to come.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "We Weren’t Made for Endless Work"

#1 Comment By Whine Merchant On September 24, 2018 @ 1:18 am

Like GO’s other folksy articles, this is an enjoyable and thoughtful read.
I would like to clarify that: “Josef Pieper suggested that our fixation on busyness stems from modern man’s suspicion of grace: “man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.” is actually a pretty good description of traditional Calvinist / Mennonite theology, that the 1620 Pilgrim mothers and fathers brought forth on this continent.

Thank you –

#2 Comment By Ben Mayo On September 24, 2018 @ 6:50 am

I enjoyed this piece. I have been reading Byung-Chul Han–The Scent of Time, and The Burnout Society. This piece is a nice complement.

#3 Comment By Hammock On September 24, 2018 @ 7:32 am

Gracy, great reminder to put aside–to make sacred–time and space for what really matters!

But by the title, I thought this was going to be about how overworked Americans are–though the fact that we often expect our coworkers to be available via text and email (via smartphone) is very relevant to what you did write.

One of the ironic results of American conservatism’s often uncritical embrace of capitalism is that the preoccupation with work and making money means less time and energy for things otherwise championed by conservatism–family, citizenship, community, faith.

I say this as an advocate for capitalism *and* all those other things. I think it’s one of the few areas where progressives/socialists and conservatives could find some common ground. Sadly, not likely to happen in today’s tribalized society.

#4 Comment By LouB On September 24, 2018 @ 4:17 pm

It can’t get any more plain than the word recreation.
The predecessor of our current “culture” encouraged religious and civic participation and hobbies, some of which were solitary endeavors and some were participatory in nature. Combine these activities with a full family life ( which now is also an object of scorn ) and the result is a life well lived.
Sadly, endless work hours and employment related busywork have robbed the individual of fulfillment not related to one’s paycheck.

As a group, we have been a bunch ‘o suckers!

#5 Comment By Creme Fraiche On September 24, 2018 @ 4:28 pm

@Hammock i agree; most conservatives in Europe support systems that help parents work for this reason. Because they believe that family and community is key to keeping the tribe healthy and safe. Always on at work means no time for family. It’s a zero sum game. Conservatives in the US in particular, but leftists as well, are naive to think the markets will fix this. It’s not in their interest to do so.

#6 Comment By Ron Pavellas On September 25, 2018 @ 9:52 am

Too many words. Just take a walk in the woods.

#7 Comment By mrscracker On September 25, 2018 @ 4:38 pm

LouB says:

“The predecessor of our current “culture” encouraged religious and civic participation and hobbies, some of which were solitary endeavors and some were participatory in nature.”

I remember reading somewhere that people in medieval times worked harder physically & had a pretty rough time of it, but they actually worked less hours than we do. So many days on the Church calendar were Holy Days & work was forbidden.
Also, peasant homes had little lighting so folks tended to go to bed when it was dark. No working late at the office or in the fields.

I’ve see tractors with lights working at night, 7 days a week to get in the cane harvest. I’m guilty of mowing past dark myself. Very little work stops for the Sabbath anymore, much less Holy Days.

#8 Comment By Mark B. On September 26, 2018 @ 9:03 pm

I greatly enjoy Gracy Olmstead’s wonderfull insights and views on the human condition and that what is important for people in order to be able to live a full live true to our human nature and needs. Whether it is about architecture, urban planning, reading, work, leisure, relations, family and so many more facets of society: she most often sees the core of the problem and that of the solution. And in those rare cases she’s lost it, she still is able to raise the right questions and sketch the dilemma very accurately.

Nuff said!