I have been blessed with babies and toddlers who were excellent nappers. Having two children under the age of two was very intense, but even in the early days, their afternoon naps would usually overlap. When everyone was a bit older, they took three-hour afternoon naps – at the same time, in the same room. Needless to say, this respite was a welcome part of my day. However, what would usually begin as a desire to put my feet up for a minute would usually progress into a Netflix-and-Facebook-binge that ended with my children waking up (and a pile of dishes that still needed to be washed).
While parenting in the early years is exhausting, and my need for physical rest was legitimate, I do look back on all that kid-free time with a conviction that I squandered a lot of it. Even still, I feel the pull of laziness like a dead weight as I try to build habits and routines to better take care of my home and family.
This is the personal context I brought into reading the third chapter of Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture (affiliate link), which begins with a discussion on acedia, a Greek word that is typically translated as idleness or laziness. This discussion brought clarity to my struggle with laziness: a better understanding of what is going on at a heart level and what to do about it. Fantastically, overcoming acedia doesn’t rely on getting my act together and getting more done: the solution is found in a deeper sort of rest than a cup of tea or an early bedtime – a rest that transcends circumstances and truly vitalizes.
Laziness is not a lack of productivity: it’s a heart condition.
Laziness, sloth, idleness: these words have a notion of unproductivity, especially in an economic sense. It’s not getting a job, letting the dishes stack up, frittering your time on TV and the internet, having nothing to show for your time, whether it’s money, a clean house, or a healthy, hot meal on the table.
When we accept this definition, we get caught up in either guilt that we aren’t doing enough (which was my case) or a frenzied anxiety to keep doing more. Either way, our attention is diverted from what is happening in our hearts to external measures of accomplishment and productivity.
In contrast, Pieper turns the modern concept of laziness on its head:
At the zenith of the Middle Ages…it was held that sloth and restlessness, “leisurelessness”, the incapacity to enjoy leisure, were all closely connected; sloth was held to be the source of restlessness, and the ultimate cause of “work for work’s sake.” (p. 38)
This understanding shifts the focus from outward evidence of how I spend my time to what’s going on in my heart. According to the medieval understanding of acedia, Pieper tells us that idleness is the condition where man
…does not want to be as God wants him to be, and that ultimately means that he does not wish to be what he really, fundamentally, is…beneath the dynamic activity of his existence, he still is not at one with himself. (p. 38-39)
When the problem at hand is distaste and discomfort with who God wants us to be, the solution is not to wrap ourselves up with our to-do list. The answer is to seek the deep and powerful peace we find when we accept who God wants us to be. Crucially, we turn away from acedia, from leisurelessness, to its opposite: leisure.
The opposite of laziness is “an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence”.
If laziness is a spirit of restlessness, then leisure is a spirit of peace. We aren’t mulling over all the things we ought to be doing, or worrying how we’ll get everything done. Instead, Pieper states:
There is also a certain serenity in leisure. That serenity springs precisely from our inability to understand, from our recognition of the mysterious nature of the universe; it springs from the courage of deep confidence, so that we are content to let things take their course. (p. 41)
If I have a hard time getting started on household jobs, I easily swing towards a frenetic, ‘must-get-this-all-done-now’ attitude once I do begin. When I get swept up in this, it is all too easy to steamroller my family when they want my attention, including requests from my children to be involved in the work I’m doing.
When my kids become an obstruction to my to-do list, I am focused on clearing them out of the way along with the mess I’m tidying up. I’m unwilling to take the time to help them practice important life skills, like drying dishes, wiping a counter, or tidying toys, skills that would not only pay dividends once they’ve mastered them, but would also foster a sense of collaboration and community in our family immediately.
However, when I approach my day from a place of rest or leisure, I am happy to hit pause on my to-do list because I recognize that God may have other more important plans. I am more likely to see His prompting. I am ‘holding the reigns of my life loosely’, as Pieper puts it, and am able to trust that the opportunities in front of me are likely more important than vacuuming the carpet before I leave the house, or being precisely on time to a meeting.
The opposite of laziness is “an attitude of contemplative ‘celebration’”.
If leisure is a calm, receptive state of mind, there is still a participatory aspect to it. Pieper tells us that “leisure draws its vitality from affirmation” (p. 42). In affirmation, we agree that we are who God says we are and that God’s creation is good. Celebrations and festivals are the epitome of practicing affirmation – an intentional shift from everyday life to participate in a special affirmation of God’s goodness.
I recently fumbled a social situation at church. I acted before thinking, and I found myself embarrassed and attempting to fix the situation. In the midst of it, I was extremely agitated, wishing I could hide under a rock until everyone forgot. I couldn’t settle to anything quiet: reading a book, watching the children play, or anything of that nature. I could hardly stay seated, and resigned myself to finding jobs to do around the house.
In the medieval sense, this experience is a textbook example of acedia. My heart was deeply unsettled. Instead of acting from a place of confidence that God covers my sin and shame, and that He would work out the situation, I instead went about my day with worry that I had made an irreparable mistake, that others would think I was irresponsible and awkward, and, ultimately, that their opinions of me mattered more than God’s.
The salve for this restlessness? Confessing the lies I had believed, and coming back into agreement with God that I am a loved child in His family, that this is more important than the opinions of others, and that I hadn’t made a mistake that would ruin His plans. Instead of stubbornly refusing to accept His truth, I celebrate it and am able to rest in it.
The opposite of laziness is staying in touch with our full humanity.
Caring for young children often leaves me feeling less than human. Brain fog after short and broken nights of sleep. Food all over my clothes. Messes that continue to appear day after day, regardless of how often I tidy. If those things aren’t enough to make me question if I’m still a person, my two older kids like to play with words and rhymes, and it’s not unusual for absolute nonsense to come from their mouths. On the hardest days, I actually find myself wondering whether my children just spoke English or if they were just being silly.
In these times, I often want a break. I remember those glorious days of afternoon naps, and how good I had it. I want to be able to turn off, unwind, to not be available ‘on demand’ or in charge. My responsibilities and circumstances have demanded much of me; I know they will continue to demand more. Perhaps, my thinking goes, a few minutes of peace will help me find what I need to carry on.
Pieper, however, suggests that there is a problem with seeing rest as a means to make us fit for work:
A break in one’s work, whether of an hour, a day or a week, is still part of the world of work…The pause is made for the sake of work and in order to work, and a man is not only refreshed from work but for work. Leisure is an altogether different matter. (p. 43)
When we see rest as a breather we take in order to have the strength to do our work, we limit ourselves and our purpose to work and productivity. In a sense, we hit a glass ceiling: we’ll never be more than our accomplishments, and we can only cease from exertion long enough to get back to work with renewed vigor.
What hope we have for something more! In leisure, we escape the hamster wheel of work and productivity completely. We get back in touch with our personhood, the fact that we created by God in order to rest in Him, as He rested after creation.
Pieper includes a quote from Thomas Aquinas in the footnotes, which explains this more fully:
As God, who made all things did not rest in those things…but rested in himself from the created works…so we too should learn not to regard the works as the goal, but to rest from the works in God himself, in whom our felicity lies.
Leisure is an end in itself. It’s purpose isn’t to help us get back to work, and if that’s all we think it is, we miss the point and will frustratingly fail to find the deep rest that God offers us. In refusing to raise our eyes above what we get done on a daily basis, we forget the fact that we are more than diaper-changing-cooking-cleaning-automatons. No, we are persons, intended for wholeness, peace, and rest.
Mulling over these ideas has given me so much encouragement. With relief I realize that laziness is a pendulum, swinging between doing nothing (when I really ought to be), and manically blasting my way through a list of jobs and errands, and that at the very middle, there is a rest that goes beyond my comprehension.
In moments of restlessness, I can pray for help to hold the reigns of life loosely. At times of exhaustion, I can be still and quiet, and affirm God’s goodness in my life. When I’m feeling less than human, I can remember that God has created me to be whole.
Things still need to get done around my house. My children need to be parented. My allotment needs weeding. As I am writing this, there is a cheese mess on the kitchen floor to be cleaned up. But with this message of rest in my heart, I can attend to these things from a place of peace and calm.