Recovering the Value of Leisure
(article originally written for Early to Rise (ETR)
Like you, I’ve spent a big part of my life doing and accomplishing things. It’s been both challenging and fulfilling, whether it was during my time as a high school teacher, a pastor, campus chaplain, or presently, as a life and leadership coach.
For over four decades I have been deeply involved in mentoring young people and in assisting business professionals to integrate spirituality and faith into their success formulas.
Throughout all of this, my wife and three sons were along for part of the ride. They lived in the shadow that I cast through my various roles.
Here’s my confession: I was young and didn’t know better.
In retrospect, there’s much I would have changed about my lifestyle.
Doing leisure and having fun for fun’s sake wasn’t in my plan back then.
ETR editor Craig Ballantyne has written his 12 rules he lives by. These are outstanding and I often forward them on to people who are seeking to get their bearings in life and productivity.
The 13th Rule
At the risk of offending Craig, I would add an all important 13th rule that states, “I will do leisure not as a duty but as a way of investing in my well being and the well being of those around me.”
(Craig notes: No offense taken!)
Leisure isn’t something limited to the summer or to your golden years of retirement, although many of us tend to live that way.
Working, and thinking about work all of the time is not optimal to your health or your work performance. William McNamara wrote, “Possibly the greatest malaise in our country is our neurotic compulsion to work.”
The ancient Greeks agreed. Thousands of years earlier they had developed a saying, “You will break the bow if you keep it always bent.” You need time away from your work to relax and recover.
The late Tim Hansel wrote in his classic When I Relax I Feel Guilty, “When work becomes a person’s all consuming interest, even if the work is good and necessary, it is idolatry.” Strong words, but words worth taking to heart.
If the words frantic, frazzled, and frenzied describe the pace of your individual life or your family life, take a moment of rest and reflection after reading this article, and write down your answers to these questions:
Do you feel refreshed and energized at your current pace?
What would happen if you just quit doing some of your activities?
Whose expectations are you trying to live up to with all your pursuits?
Do you have time to think strategically about your priorities, schedule, and sense of ‘calling’ to your big Rock Purposes?
If you could design your life, would it be this busy?
Which phrase would you use currently to describe your approach to life: 1) I am living by default, that is, whatever comes my way, I let that shape me, or 2) I am living by design, meaning, I am in as much control of shaping my life as I could be. I know what I am about and where I am heading.
In her Autobiography of a Business Woman, Alice Foote MacDougall keenly observed, that when work “becomes once a delight and a tyrant,” then “even when the time comes and you can relax, you hardly know how to.”
That was me.
In my mid forties and again mid 50s, I ran into two brick walls. One was intrapersonal in my 40s, and the other was interpersonal (with others), in my mid 50s. I believe the source of this was an inability to slow myself down long enough to become aware of what was going on in me. In short, I attribute these personal ‘train wrecks’ to emotional and physical exhaustion. Part of my path back to full health was learning to relax.
I could relate to the words of the band Alabama’s lyrics in the early nineties, “I’m in a hurry to get things done, Oh, I rush and rush until life’s no fun. All I really got to do is live and die. But I’m in a hurry and don’t know why.”
The “get busy” mindset has only gotten worse since the 90’s, let alone 1979 when Hansel wrote, “This is the age of the half-read page, and a quick hash and a mad dash; The bright night with the nerves tight, the plane hop and the brief stop, the lamp tan in a short span, the big shot in a soft spot, the brain stain and the heart pain, the cat naps ’til the spring snaps, this is our culture!
In response to my personal issues developed through a lack of leisure, I had to re-learn how to relax and not feel guilty about it, and to invest in genuine leisure in my life.
Getting to the root of words is helpful and sometimes can shed light for us as we try to move into a new arena of life. The word ‘leisure’ has an interesting etymology from the Latin. Leisure is licere, which means ‘to be permitted’. If we are ever going to install leisure into the hard drives of our lives, we must give ourselves permission to do so.
So how can we learn to relax and do leisure well?
For me, it includes taking care of myself in three areas of life—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Everyone achieves relaxation and leisure in different ways. What relaxes me might give you a tension headache.
Physically relaxing is the simplest to address. For me it involves regular downtimes—releasing the bent bow – putting limits on my work schedule and getting away for regular weekends.
I call it diverting daily, withdrawing weekly, and abandoning annually.
Let me explain using history as our guide.
Whether you consider yourself a spiritual person or not, it’s informative to look at the Hebrew idea of Sabbath. The way the Hebrews understood the concept of ‘Sabbath’ was that the Creator had built into our physical makeup a need—even a requirement—for a day each week for rest, play, reflection, worship, and change of pace.
Mental relaxation for me simply to put a hold on listening to self help books and reading leadership and business books that stirred me up when I should be relaxing. I taught myself to read and listen to fiction.
In the last two years I have read the amazing story Unbroken, as well as Pillars of the Earth, and been careful to watch movies that inspire me as well as make me laugh.
Everyone’s way of replenishing their mind is different, but it’s worth exploring what replenishes you mentally.
The last area, emotional leisure, is the hardest for me. It’s not because I am of Italian descent. I tend to be known as being overly enthusiastic and passionate which contributes to an up-and-down emotional state.
Worry, anxiety, trying to control others, anger, and resentment are major emotional leaks for me. There’s no magic formula for getting around them. Making peace to what cannot be changed helps relieve us to some extent.
I am learning to ‘house clean my attitudes’ by doing a daily audit of my emotional life. I call it having a DQT (daily quiet time) to alter my DRA’s (dirty rotten attitudes).
As a former pastor, when I have sought to take care of the spiritual dimension of my life, that has served me well in the area of having a healthy emotional life.
There are other great ways to attend to the spiritual dimension of our lives—yoga and other forms of meditation work wonders for many (including ETR’s editor, Craig Ballantyne). But whatever form of spiritual leisure we choose we should commit wholeheartedly to in order to get the most out of it.
As the adage says, “Whatever’s good for your soul, do it.”
In my mid 40s, when I began to actually practice what I was teaching others, I came across a beautiful prayer that I have used in my daily leisure and relaxation rituals. It is written by Wilfred Peterson and simply called, Slow me down, Lord.
Slow me down Lord
Ease the pounding of my heart
by the quieting of my mind.
Steady my hurried pace
with a vision of the eternal march of time.
Give me amid the confusion of the day,
the calmness of the eternal hills.
Break the tension of my nerves and muscles
with the soothing music of the singing streams
that live in my memory.
Help me to know the magical restoring power of sleep.
Teach me the art of taking MINUTE vacations,
Of slowing down to look at a flower,
to chat with a friend,
to pat a dog,
to read a few lines of a good book.
Slow me down Lord
and inspire me to send my roots
deep into the soil of life’s enduring values
that I may grow toward the stars of my greater destiny.