Blessed be boring!

I wrote this reflection in my journal in 2019 after a man I know sent me this note: “Bro, had to share. I was in the park the other day with [my two sons]. They were on the swings and I was on the bench nearby scrolling on my phone. Out of nowhere this old man comes over to me from behind and literally slaps my arm holding the phone. Scared the crap out of me. Then he says ‘hey son put it away! Shame on you. Pay attention to your boys over there. Push them on the swing. One day they’ll be gone. They need you more now than whatever it is you’re looking at there.’ I was stunned speechless and just awkwardly laughed. But here’s the truth Tom. That dude saved my soul…”

+ + +

When the children were younger, every time they would complain that they were bored, I would say: “Blessed be boring! I’ll take boring any day!” With life so complicated and non-stop between work and family and other things, what I meant was I wish I had the luxury to taste a boring moment. Bring it on! Of course, they hated when I said that, just as I would’ve when I was their age.

But there was always something much deeper about the boring complaint. How we handle times when there’s nothing to keep us busy or entertain us speaks volumes. Do we have the inner depth with self-mastery to just “be,” or does the stillness make us aware that we are like “a like a shaving of wood which is curled round its central emptiness”?

When I first read Josef Pieper’s book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, back in the 90’s, I was struck hard how impoverished my own understanding of leisure was. For Pieper, modern Western culture, dominated by a total-work ethic, has largely lost the ancient idea of a culture built around genuine leisure. Leisure being the freedom from work to enrich, expand, deepen one’s humanity by engaging in unproductive activity done “for its own sake.” Such “useless” activity finds its fullest expression in prayer, contemplation, worship, all of which position the human being before reality, and reality’s Source, in a posture of receptivity and not mastery. Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be, whisper words of wisdom, let it be — this is leisure’s anthem.

Pieper further argued that unless we regain the art of resting in silence, relationships and in celebration, which are the wombs of wonder, and unless we substitute such leisure for our hectic and empty amusements, we will destroy our culture – and ourselves. Pieper says:

The vacancy left by absence of worship and contemplation is filled by mere killing of time and by boredom, which is directly related to inability to enjoy leisure; for one can only be bored if the spiritual power to be leisurely has been lost.

In a total-work culture, the ultimate goal is the domination and exploitation of things and of people for profit, pleasure and usefulness. Life becomes constant cycle of consumption and production to feed the insatiable appetitive of an endlessly growing economic machine. Oh the human cost!

Look, Pieper says, at who we hold up as our ‘moral paragons’ — people who exhaust themselves through endless work, activity, productivity, and distract and inebriate themselves into unawareness. Busy-busy-busy is the highest virtue, about which we gladly boast, as we feel it justifies our existence — though we fail to see ourselves as the slaves we’ve become.

Those, on the other hand, who assiduously guard and privilege times of genuine leisure are idle or lazy, certainly not upholding the victim-martyr status of the busy, whose frenetic lives allow no inner space for depth to contemplate, relate and savor the beauty and goodness of life and others.

In such a culture, the enslavement to constant busyness turns leisure from restoration and elevation into recuperation for more busyness; and often a flight into addiction to entertainment, pleasure or distraction. And what suffers most is our relationships. Our humanity. Homo sapiens ‘wise man’ has been overcome by homo faber ‘doing man.’ Who I am comes from what I do. Fr. Tom Hopko put it this way:

It happens that men and women who once were human are simply no longer so. They have become nothing but minds and matter, brains and bodies, computers and consumers, calculators and copulators, constructors and cloners, who believe that they are free and powerful, but who are in fact being destroyed by the very nature that they wish to conquer as they are enslaved to an oligarchy of conditioners who are themselves enslaved and destroyed by their insane strivings to define, design, manage, and manipulate a world and a humanity bereft of the God who boundlessly loves them.

Leisure is, Pieper says, not an evasion of work, but a state of soul, an ability to cease labor, allow the world to be itself — and to receive work, and everything, as a gift from God to be offered back to God; a gift unearned, unachieved, unpossessed. In a culture of leisure, human worth and dignity no longer flow from constant activity, but from simply being, and being-with. And those incapable of work celebrate times of leisure as moments of liberation as the rest of humanity joins them in the dignity of being loved just because.

Interesting to note the striking resonance between this cultural dis-ease and the complaint of Pharaoh (Ex. 5:18) when Moses told him the Hebrew God wanted His people to be allowed to cease working for three days so they could travel into the desert to leisurely worship on the seventh day Sabbath. Pharaoh, who demanded endless activity of his slaves, responded:

You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.

Oh the great gift of Sabbath! But how extraordinary it is that God had to COMMAND us activity-addicts to stop working on the Seventh Day and just-be-with Him, dine, sing and dance with him, and be with one another. Only in sabbath leisure can this kind of surreal scene happen atop Mt. Sinai:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu,
and seventy of the elders of Israel went up,
and they saw the God of Israel.
Under his feet there was something
like a pavement of sapphire stone,
like the very heaven for clearness.
God did not lay his hand
on the chief men of the Israelites;
they gazed on God,
and they ate and drank. –Ex. 24:9-11

Historian Thomas Cahill famously punctuated this grandeur of Sabbath:

No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest. The God who made the universe and rested bids us do the same, calling us to a weekly restoration of prayer, study, and recreation (or re-creation).

The connections to both freedom and creativity lie just beneath the surface of this commandment: leisure is appropriate to a free people, and this people so recently free find themselves quickly establishing this quiet weekly celebration of their freedom; leisure is the necessary ground of creativity, and a free people are free to imitate the creativity of God. The Sabbath is surely one of the simplest and sanest recommendations any god has ever made; and those who live without such septimanal punctuation are emptier and less resourceful.

Those people who work seven days a week, even if they are paid millions of dollars to do so, are, in the biblical conception, slaves.

So, next time you are overcome by a feeling of boredom, or uselessness in not being busy, beg the Master of Leisure, the Lord of the Sabbath, to teach you to rest and celebrate that boring moment as blessed. Blessed to be with Him, with the natural world, with those you love, and above all with those who need your love.

When you can do that you will know that, at last, you are truly free.

2 comments on “Blessed be boring!

  1. Jennifer says:

    Beauty!
    Thank you for this post. Lots to chew on. Of course, this mostly screams at me and my own stubborn struggles with this, but instead I’ll share another thought.

    I often meet (mostly) men here at the nursing home who are beside themselves for want of being productive. Of course, not having much to do day after day would frustrate any of us, but I’m talking about the heartbreaking distress of these men who express feeling they have completely lost their sense of self and worth now that they have been stripped of their ability to work, earn a living, financially provide for a family, manage, direct. Although their financial and physical needs are now taken care of, this assurance does not satisfy and indeed misses the reason for their anguish. And of course, I’m oversimplifying or perhaps extrapolating too much. This sense of vocation to providing for one’s family is certainly not a bad thing, nor do you suggest that in advocating for leisure — indeed it’s a proper balance, but alas, all things — even good things, especially good things — can become attachments that hold us back from totally surrendering and centering our sense of self in our identity as utterly dependent on God. As I read this post today I was reminded of that St. John of the Cross post — you know the one — about the purpose of going to the monastery being to learn to live with the others who rankle you and so doing become a saint. Well, it made me think `don’t think you’ve come to this ultra-retirement, this painstakingly enforced inactivity, for any reason but to become a saint.’

    Ha, as I type this I have a sudden flashback to my post-concussive experience (that I’ve shared here before) of recognizing this liberating truth, clear as the midday sun in anotherwise cloudy brain: God just loves me. Not because of what I can do or offer or say to Him. I was feeling like a powerless, useless heap and yet I felt the certainty of His love in that moment and my ‘dull brain’ learned more in that instant than my ‘sharp brain’ ever has.

    Well, thank you for this, my dear friend. Always, always grateful for the time and effort you put in to curating a lifetime of earned wisdom into moderate sized bits for us to glean from here.

    Hail the Cross our only hope!

    Jennifer

    • Thank you for that profound reflection on leisure in connection with your experience serving in an assisted care facility and nursing home. All of the points you make there are poignant, in finding the balance in all of it, but especially your comment about St. John of the cross and those people who come to enforced inactivity finding their a call to holiness. Super profound! But it also makes me reflect on the disintegration of generations and how that affects the culture of leisure when those who at the end of life enter into a unique form of leisure so to speak no longer, or more rarely, live among those whose lives are busy and active and frenetic. Those at the end of life or a living memory of a certain dimension of human existence that is precious, that is also captured in leisure. It makes me think of a Russian proverb that people in my fathers orthodox parish used to quote often
      “ Old age is for prayer.”
      And when you disintegrate the lived community among generations this gets lost
      Thank you again Jennifer for always bringing substance and fire to this blog

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