Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

We Weren’t Made for Endless Work

To be fully human, we need to put down our phones for a while.

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 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.” 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.