Everyone do Leisure Studies: Summer, Recreation, and Vocation

Summer officially begins in two days. COVID notwithstanding, its time to make plans to get away from work, spend more time outdoors, getting exercise, exploring creation, and investigating new landscapes and communities. We just got a used trampoline for the backyard, and we are planning a family bicycle trip this month. These kind of activities, often restorative, refreshing, and psychologically pleasant in anticipation and recollection, are commonly referred to as “recreation and leisure.”

Recreation and leisure activities are meant to offer a retreat from work and renew your spirit. Even right in your backyard. This photo was taken before they put the sprinkler underneath and tossed in all the balls.

Ironically for us in a world where education is a gargantuan industry and learning can be another experience of burnout, the word “school” comes from the latin schola which meant free time, or leisuretime outside of working for a living. This suggests classical schools were originally intended to be an interruption of the harried and hectic hullabaloo of life in order to take time to explore the beauty, goodness and deep truths of our planetary existence and mysteries beyond. Books –much fewer in number and painstakingly produced– would not be breezed through, but read, re-read and savoured. Teaching was more like mentoring. Class discussion was a fine art, as language, argumentation and rhetoric were central to the experience. People were cultivated, acculturated, for productive citizenship. To be sure, accessibility was nowhere near what it is today, but what they had was rich, no pun intended.

What is leisure today? Passively sitting down in front of a screen and binge watching another Netflix series? For many, that’s the sad truth. Surely there are healthier, more creative options that leave us more happy, holy and hopeful. For Christians, recreation and leisure are certainly part of a good creation-based theology and what Jesus called “abundant life” (John 10:10).

Did you know leisure and recreation is also a bona fide program you can major in at university today? For sure. I wonder, though: In a way, why can’t we all at least minor in the subject of leisure? Or better yet, why can’t our work be a form of leisure, on top of our “leisure time”? My agency, Global Scholars Canada, isn’t just for theologians: its for scholars in any discipline who seek a global reach. We like to think you can make leisure your work, so to speak. Your vocation–where your passion, your pleasure, your skills, and the needs of the world all intersect as a calling from God. Regardless of your education, class, or position in life, this is possible, and on multiple levels. Vocation includes home, school, work, and play.

Work as Serious Play

Remember the playful medical student Patch Adams (from the movie Patch Adams, starring the late Robin Williams)? Patch is a brilliant student with a relentless sense of humour. He ambles into his dorm room one day and faces his jealous roommate, who seethes at him: “You make my effort [at academics] a joke. This isn’t a game to me. This isn’t playtime. This is serious business. I have it in me to be a great doctor. In order to do that I have to sacrifice – if I want to be better … I could be like you and go around laughing and having a good time, ha, ha, but I prefer to learn.”

Medicine is a serious business, he says. That may be the biggest problem with medicine in North America today, and work in general. Its serious, as in impersonal and sombre, and business, as in bureaucratic and industrial (and for some, revolving around big profits and incomes). The Protestant work ethic is also serious business–“idle hands are the devils playground” we’re told. Good Christians are over-committed busy beavers. God frowns on frivolity and the inefficiency of silliness or creativity. Its a lie that hurts so many people, leaving many tired, resentful, or burned out.

You see, this medical student rival to Patch Adams was a sad, pompous bore, who falsely believed he had to be a jerk and live like an intellectual machine in order to be good in his profession. I wonder if we, too, believe falsely that survival and success lie in separating our humanity from our academic and work life. That the more detached, objective, and productive we are, the happier our life will be (down the road sometime, to be sure. We have to be talking way down the road.) Our work is driven by a frantic fear or calculating ambition, and others may just get in the way of our serious business. So we step on them to get ahead.

Leisure Is More than Free Time

Dr. Paul Heintzman is a friend and is a professor in recreation and leisure studies. One of his seminal publications is Leisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Perspectives (Brazos, 2015), which highlights connections between spirituality and leisure. His research shows not only that leisure is conducive to well-being in general, it also contributes to spiritual, communal, environmental well-being – a sense of connectedness with oneself, others, and the universe.

Sadly, he says that while the leisure industry and studies have been burgeoning, modern life suffers when it comes to leisure time. People worked hard in the Middle Ages, to be sure, but the strain came in seasons. Winter and darkness put much work to rest. “Industrialization dramatically increased the length of the working day for most people,” he writes. People work in order to play now. In fact, leisure is a giant industry today. Its a whole lot of work.

True leisure is not simply free time. Your attitude must be open, you must be fully awake and ready to see things in a different way. The setting is important, too, as quiet natural landscapes nurture the spirit better than noisy cityscapes (although an evening at the theatre or Harbourfront can be immensely enjoyable). Finally, activities that are authentic or true to your interests are better than harshly competitive activities, or those that feel they require some artificial stimulation in order to become pleasant.

But our work can be leisurely, too. Some leisure activities, on the other hand, can be more like work. Imagine a treadmill.

Dr. Heintzman reminds me that the early Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures have Psalm 46:10 saying: “Have leisure and know that I am God.” He says there is a way of life that sees all things as sacred – a life of “holy leisure” if you will, that is a median between busy-ness and idleness. Quoting Richard Foster, he says this is “a sense of balance in life, an ability to be at peace through the activities of the day, an ability to rest and take time to enjoy beauty, an ability to pace ourselves.” Again, that can be at work, play, or worship.

Summer begins. It has been a chaotic, uncertain, and draining spring due to the pandemic. It is a time for spiritual renewal, time to have leisure and get a God-like perspective on our lives again. See the big-picture of our life before the face of God and eternity. To see our whole life as school, education, learning, and most of all schola, is not just the privilege of the rich, but a form of Christian, biblical spirituality.

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