The last two weeks have felt surreal, if not apocalyptic. Emotions have quickly gone from general concern to morbid fascination to fear to outright panic, as many of the institutions and ways of life we have long taken for granted bend under the strain. Panic generates its own emotional and spiritual contagion, which can feel more frightening than the virus itself. The effect is magnified by the evacuation of our public spaces, which feels to many like an evacuation of their inner selves.
There has been a lot of advice on how protect our bodies from the virus. But how do we protect our souls? One way, I submit, is through leisure.
The Paradox of Progress
In Walker Percy’s Lancelot, the eponymous character relates a story:
I knew a married couple once who were bored with life, disliked each other, hated their own lives, and were generally miserable—except during hurricanes. Then they sat in their house at Pass Christian, put a bottle of whiskey between them, felt a surge of happiness, were able to speak frankly and cheerfully to each other, laugh and joke, drink, even make love.
The state of this couple, “bored” and “miserable,” is perhaps familiar, and it reminds us that the advantages of modern life do not always make us happier. We might call this “the paradox of modern progress.” Why is it that as material and economic conditions for living improve, people often feel so much worse? Here is one answer, in a nutshell.
Modernity is a massive humanitarian project to secure human beings against suffering, illness, violence, and death. This project requires a dramatic reconceptualization of nature, including human nature. Who can protest such a worthy goal? Who would like to go back to the days before antibiotics and vaccines, not to mention horses and carriages? How many of our loved ones will modern science save from the coronavirus? And yet there are costs.
In the first place, this project elicits false hopes that can never be satisfied. Its formidable gains against suffering and death increase the felt intensity of the losses—both real and prospective—that remain.
Moreover, the scientific part of this project requires a reductive “disenchantment” of nature that deprives us of a great source of meaning. The result is often boredom, a characteristically modern experience that is not merely the absence of “something to do,” but rather the existential dread of encountering the emptiness of one’s self and one’s life. Indeed, in the end, the awareness of death is more awful than death itself. Dogs must die too, but how many of them suffer depression, suicide, and drug addiction because of it? As Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World so powerfully illustrates, the cost of the modern project is the loss of our humanity. This is the key to modern entertainment culture, which exists to divert us as much as possible from being alone with ourselves.
Finally, this fear of being alone with oneself, while it promotes a generic sociability, prevents genuine intimacy, which can only occur between persons who know themselves as dependent beings and are willing to risk knowing and being known by others. One can have a million Facebook “friends” and yet be utterly isolated and alone. Indeed, one suspects this is not an uncommon experience. Even more troubling is that we can be isolated even among those with whom we are most familiar.
In sum, if the modern project is specifically prone to one capital sin which is the root of the others, it is acedia. Acedia is often translated as “sloth,” but this is misleading. Whereas “sloth” implies an absence of activity, acedia can be—and often is—expressed as an excess of activity. As Josef Pieper points out in his magisterial little book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, acedia is ultimately a refusal to consent to the deep-down goodness and mysteriousness of being, beginning with the being of oneself. For this reason, Thomas Aquinas suggestively classifies it as a sin against the Sabbath, that day when God looked at all He had made with a contemplative gaze and declared it “very good.” This gaze is so important, and yet apparently so difficult for sinful human beings, that he includes it in his Ten Commandments: Keep holy the Sabbath!
The Recovery of Leisure
This account of acedia helps to highlight the true meaning of leisure, the virtue to which it is opposed. Leisure is not therefore merely rest or play or the absence of work, and it is the farthest thing from “vegging.” Rather, in its deepest sense, it is the fully engaged but receptive affirmation of the goodness of Being, and of those goods that are intrinsically good “for their own sake” (honesta bona) and not merely useful (utilia bona). This is the secret of Lenten penance, which, by detaching us from created things in order to focus on the Creator, paradoxically promotes the joyful appreciation of God and His creation. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “Earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”
We get a glimpse of this in the Lancelot story. There, the couple, in the very moment when nature appears most hostile to human flourishing, are given almost as a grace the “gaze of leisure,” through which they are able to appreciate the bounteous goodness of nature. In the first place, they “gladden their hearts” with the “fruit of the earth,” a bottle of whiskey (an appropriate substitute for wine, for a couple of southerners). They speak “frankly” to one another, a necessary condition for intimacy, and they “laugh and joke” with one another, a transcendent activity peculiar to rational beings; finally, “they even make love,” an activity which appears to be the very consummation of their conviviality.
There is a clue here to how we might respond to coronavirus. Schools are closed. Sports and music lessons are cancelled. Everyone is at home. What are you going to do? Instead of allowing coronavirus control your life, why not plan for leisure? Use this time to do the things you are always wishing you had the time to do—or do better. Now you have that time, so do those things.
Pray, Eat, Play, Read, Sing, . . .
This will look different for everyone, but here are five things my family is planning to do: pray, eat, play, read, and sing.
First, Pray. Make this like a family retreat. That means making regular family prayer the center of your plan. We are praying the Litany of St. Joseph each morning, and the rosary each evening, making each bead a special intention, for the sick, for health-care workers, for the homeless, for vocations, for the conversion of souls, etc., etc.
Second, Eat. Have meals together, in which you have conversations around the table. Plan a question for each meal that everyone can participate in. What is your favorite Christmas memory? What makes humans different from other animals? What makes humans different from computers? What is evil, and what causes it?
Third, Play. Group games are so good for building character and friendship. In addition to developing specific skills (spelling, acting, throwing and hitting a ball), they give occasions for honorable assertion, graceful victory, acceptance of loss, forgiveness, and mutual care. Favorite Schlueter games include chess, Euchre, poker, and Settlers of Catan.
Fourth, Read. I mean read stories aloud each evening. Together. In a cozy space, in front of a fire, if you have one. There is nothing so delightful as enjoying a good story with others. A well-chosen story, enjoyed with others, not only provides healthy imaginative release from the harshness of reality, it also transforms and illuminates our perception of reality itself. What stories? Here are some classics that won’t fail you: The Little House on the Prairie series; Watership Down; The Wind in the Willows; The Chronicles of Narnia. Having been through these many times, we are currently reading Little Women.
Finally, Sing. This is really shorthand for “make music.” As Andrew Lytle advised in I’ll Take My Stand, “Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall.” In a culture dominated by the passive consumption of produced music, we have lost that transcendently simple joy of making music with others. If you’ve never learned an instrument, now is the time. There are so many resources online! I have learned to play both banjo and guitar. My daughter is learning the fiddle. My son is learning the mandolin. All from the comfort of our living room! You don’t have to sound great to experience this joy. You just have to do it. I suggest you choose a few songs that you want to learn together. Some of our family favorites are “The Fox Went out on a Chilly Night” (illustrated story and music here) for an energetic song, and the canon “Dona Nobis Pacem” (this recording has the notes) for a prayerful one (with some Latin as a bonus).
. . . And Love
Oh, and there is one more thing: Love. Without love, all our efforts at leisure are in vain. Yes, love your spouse. (I have friends who are betting whether the coronavirus quarantine will result in more children. Let’s pray it does!) But also love your parents, children, and siblings. We need love not only for those who are closest to us (and therefore often most difficult to love) but also and especially for our most vulnerable neighbors: for the elderly, the poor, the lonely, and the sick among us.
The coronavirus is evil. God never causes evil, but he permits it for our greater good. One of those goods is to remind us of the things that matter most. As our beloved pastor in Hillsdale, Father Tom Butler, often said, “In my priesthood, I have prepared thousands for death, and not once has someone said to me ‘I wish I had made just a little bit more money.’ Instead, they say ‘I wish I had reconciled with my father (or my brother, my sister, etc.),’ before they died.’”
We can make this evil an occasion for despair, or we can choose to see it as a “severe mercy” for our benefit, for our joy, and ultimately, for our sanctification.