Through the recreation and leisure made possible by travel, people are restored and renewed, body and spirit. They return home to family and work with a new perspective and enthusiasm for life.” –St. John Paul II
A few rambling thoughts as I sit outside alone listening to the waves.
My family and I are on vacation at the beach, blanking out the rest of life for a time to focus with great intensity on nothing much. The word vacation comes from the Latin, vacare, which means “to be empty, free.” Early this morning I thought on that. Emptied of the cares and anxieties of life to recreate amid the carefree lilies of the field. Freed from toil and labor to find rest, refreshment and renewal. Freed from the strictures of efficiency wherein love is free to carry out its rebellion against the reduction of worth to usefulness. Emptied in order to be filled with wonder and gratitude for the sheer gratuitousness of existence. Emptied of stale routines to receive vibrant insights only to be had by stepping aside from the relentless flow of life. Freed from compulsive or addictive habits to play.
To play. Play is (I imagine) the ability to subordinate usefulness and purpose, pragmatism and efficiency to love, joy, laughter, music, beauty and spontaneous freedom bound only by limitless truth. Like art, play permits a freer expression of the human spirit’s limitless desire for the “fullness of being” than this life allows. Those who cannot play cannot pray, as prayer is consent to God’s unchained love, joy, laughter, music, beauty, freedom, truth, life. Which is why vacations should very naturally inspire prayer.
Josef Pieper famously said, “Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.” On vacation with my family, I encounter the dignity of unjustified existence. Of existence justified by the gift of God alone. I am “at one with myself” only when I embrace this most fundamental truth of who I am: All is gift. That means that doing is always subsequent to the primacy of grace. Work, if it is not to become enslaving or dehumanizing, must freely flow out of gratitude, serving as my unique amplification of the gift.
I know a woman who prides herself on working seven days a week with very few vacations free from work. Once when we were talking, I complimented her on a quality she had. She said, “thanks, no offence but I just can’t believe that.” I was a bit stunned and asked her what she meant, and she just opened wide the floodgates.
She told me that it is very hard for her to receive a compliment or a gift. When she receives them, she said, she then feels even more burdened by a terrible debt to “earn” the compliment or “justify” the gift. They are more of a burden for her than a benefit, and, she said very candidly, she would rather not receive them at all. As we spoke more about this she said, “Tom, the reality is that underneath all of this I don’t feel worthy of anything good. I grew up in a high-achieving family where we were all judged by each other — who is better or worse at sports, smarter in school, harder working, tougher. I am burdened all the time by guilt and the need to prove myself to everyone. It’s all internal. I hate it, but I can’t seem to free myself. Even when I pray, since I feel that God is judging me the same way, is useless. Just makes it all worse, so I just say my prayers and don’t go too deep. So I figure it’s easier for me to wear myself down with work, shift the debt to others who then, I imagine at least, feel indebted to me because I exceeded their work and did more for them than they did for me. Better to wear myself down with work than to face the fact that I feel empty and worthless inside.”
She shed tears for most of the conversation. Then she said at the end, “And you know, Tom, you are free to share this with people if you think it would help.” I thanked her and asked if I could help her think through at least the spiritual part of her struggle. She said, “No, thanks so much. Because then I would be indebted to you. You see how sick this is?”