Leisure as activity undertaken for its own sake

Gracy Olmstead on properly understanding leisure:

As Elizabeth Bruenig recently wrote for the Washington Post, “There’s a balance to be struck where it comes to work and rest, but in the United States, values and laws are already slanted drastically in favor of work.” …

But ancient philosophers argued that the good life involved leisure: periods of contemplation and celebration set apart from—or perhaps, more correctly, superseding—“the daily grind.” As Aristotle put it: “The first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end.” It’s hard to imagine someone arguing in America today that leisure is better than work. For the average U.S. worker—even if only on a subconscious level—leisure is seen not as the end of occupation but rather as its drudge: its job is to refresh us just enough to enable our return to work. Rest, in America, facilitates more busyness. And if the ancient philosophers were right, this means we’ve mixed up our means and ends.

It’s important to note, however, that our “work” and “leisure” are both profoundly different than the types of occupation and rest that the ancients would have experienced. Plato did not sit in a cubicle for forty hours a week, responding to emails and attending meetings. Aristotle could not have imagined an era in which people sat on subways and in cars for hours on end to commute to and from their work space. In their time, work was most often manual and headquartered in one’s own home or neighborhood: tradesmen, farmers, and laborers spent their time handling physical tools, creating and selling physical goods, interacting in real time with real people.

In addition, “leisure” as the ancients defined it would never have encompassed today’s consumptive and passive forms of recreation and respite. Whereas we spend our downtime watching Netflix shows or scrolling through our Facebook feeds, the ancients’ word for “leisure” was the Greek word σχολή, from which we get our word “school.” As Roger Kimball writes in his New Criterion article “Josef Pieper: Leisure and Its Discontents,” the ancients’ conception of leisure was “not idleness, but activity undertaken for its own sake: philosophy, aesthetic delectation, and religious worship are models.”

What’s more, true leisure required virtue, according to Aristotle: we are only free to pursue the good life and the bounties of contemplation when we are unshackled from the slavish desires of the flesh. Plato, similarly, compared man’s threefold self—mind, spirit, and flesh—to a man skillfully driving a chariot, keeping his horses in check. If the man cannot tame his inner self, he cannot live virtuously.

Leisure shouldn’t be escapism from the professional world, or from the responsibilities of your everyday life, in other words. It can, rather, be a means of discovering the inner stillness that allows for contemplation, for true togetherness with friends, for the mental or physical or emotional or whatever space necessary to hear the inner voice of conscience that answers deep questions with which one might be wrestling, etc. To the extent that leisure is just frivolity, it makes sense to avoid it and simpler work more. But it can be more than that.

Stability and specialness of place

K.E. Colombini on the impermanence of place:

When I was young, I had a recurring dream. I’d be walking home from grade school—it was a walk of only a few blocks—and I’d pass the house that sat next-door to mine on the school side. I expected to see my home beyond the neighbors’ tall hedge, but it wasn’t there. My home had ceased to exist.

It was only a dream. But as I think about places in which I’ve spent periods of my life, I do sense a disturbing trend. The hospital outside Sacramento where I was born is gone, replaced by a tidy subdivision. My elementary school is no longer an elementary school, and my junior high school is no longer a junior high school. In a few years, my high school will move to a new location. My college dorms and classrooms have been torn down and rebuilt.

The small newspaper chain at which I held my first real job was bought out by its daily metro competitor, and the office in which I worked is now an auto-parts store. Even that metro paper has moved to a new, less expensive location. Another paper for which I worked has since closed, and its building, celebrated as technologically advanced when it was built in the 1960s, was torn down—ostensibly for a grander development, which has yet to appear more than a decade later. A Fortune 500 company for which I later worked, a company with a long and proud American lineage, has since been taken over by foreign interests that swept in, ransacked, and restructured the office and its culture. Only the governmental offices that employed me, such as the State Capitol, seem resistant to change—for good or for ill.

Our throwaway culture has come to include entire buildings. Everywhere one looks, one senses the impermanence of place. …

When one thinks of monks or nuns, the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience come to mind. But many also take a vow of stability. In The Sign of Jonas, the journal that traces the time around his ordination as a Trappist priest, Thomas Merton describes that vow: “By making a vow of stability the monk renounces the vain hope of wandering off to find a ‘perfect monastery.’”

St. Benedict had little respect for monks who lacked stability, and he applied to them the perfectly fitting term “gyrovague.” His Rule states: “These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony.”

We all need to learn that “perfect” doesn’t exist on earth; the greener grass is probably artificial turf. Stability is a commitment to life as it is now: the relationships, the places, the joys, and even the sorrows we deal with each day. It is a refusal of the temptation to run away from our lives when they get dark or uncomfortable. And it is a recognition that the places we know will change. …

The maps of our lives beckon us to explore new places while urging us to take along those things that have shaped us and made us who we are: the memories, the people, the ideas, the beliefs, the virtues and values we hold most dear. Stability keeps all this intact when the world of matter outside wants to make us think it is more important than it really is.

A few years ago I wrote that nostalgia lives in places that, in the context of what we do have in our daily lives, tell us what we no longer have (or never had) but recognize as good and worth pursuing. Stability is the foundation for special places like so many of America’s college towns, places that seem to stand outside of time, to some degree, and offer aged alums as much as first time visitors a sense that, “Yes, this place is enough.”

Vincent Lambert and unresponsive wakefulness

Vincent Lambert’s life hangs in the balance in French courts at the moment, as his wife continues efforts to withdraw his food and water (which would lead to his death, due to his brain injury and inability to feed himself) and his parents’ efforts to affirm his right to life and continue providing him food and water, which is all Vincent requires to live. Bobby Schindler and I spoke about Vincent on EWTN’s Pro-Life Weekly this week:

And we also wrote about the issue of care for persons diagnosed with “unresponsive wakefulness syndrome”:

It’s a simple reality that many patients who are not actively dying are nonetheless described as facing “end of life” issues, often simply due to physical or cognitive disabilities.

This is particularly true for patients diagnosed with “Unresponsive Wakefulness Syndrome,” the terminology doctors and patient advocates increasingly prefer to the more pejorative “Persistent Vegetative State” language — though both describe patients with diminished autonomy.

Why would one’s disabilities cause some medical challenges to be termed “end of life” issues? Our modern, utilitarian-minded culture judges one’s “quality of life” by asking “What can you do?” And if it’s judged that you can’t “do” enough, your “quality of life” is said to be “poor” and what for others would be considered basic health issues become strangely re-characterized as “end of life” issues.

Terri Schiavo, notably, was diagnosed PVS shortly after her 1990 collapse and was consequently referred to as a “vegetable” (implication: non-human) in the media. Otto Warmbier, more recently, was instead diagnosed UWS and, even as he died from undisclosed complications resulting from his political imprisonment in North Korea, was spoken about in a way that generally respected his basic humanity. If these two cases can be held up as examples, they illustrate the good and laudatory way in which UWS reduces the overt marginalization of patients with cognitive disability.

Unlike Otto, however, who was presumably reliant on extraordinary life support by the time he returned home, most patients, like Terri, diagnosed UWS, rely on no medically extraordinary care — and indeed, the only “life support” they require is food and water. This is often delivered by a feeding tube because in most cases such patients have lost the memory of how to swallow.

Their situation is sometimes misrepresented as if it were tantamount to supplying oxygen to an otherwise terminal patient whose body is shutting down.

Patients experiencing UWS can be better understood to be experiencing forms of physical and cognitive disability, in contrast to the dreary and misleading portrayal of them as actively suffering, near-death patients.

Since as many as 48 percent of such diagnoses may turn out to be incorrect, and as many as 10 percent or more of such patients ultimately emerge from UWS into an improved state of cognizance, it’s worth asking what “unresponsive wakefulness” means, if it doesn’t mean that someone is facing an end-of-life issue.

Terri Wallis lived for 19 years in an unresponsive state of minimal consciousness after suffering injuries from a vehicle crash. His abrupt and unexpected recovery began with his first word in nearly two decades: “Mom.”

Martin Pistorius was diagnosed as “vegetative” after coming home from school as a boy with a sore throat and slipping into unresponsiveness. Martin lived for more than a decade with full awareness but an inability to meaningfully communicate before recovering and sharing his story.

Patricia White Bull was diagnosed vegetative and unable to communicate meaningfully after complications from the birth of her son. One day, after 16 years in this state, while a nurse was adjusting her blankets, Patricia unexpectedly exclaimed, “Don’t do that!”

These are three distinct, remarkable stories, but each shares the themes of hopefulness and surprise. Each patient required a resilient and continual love, emotional patience and mental fortitude from their families and their caretakers. Their recoveries could not have been precisely anticipated, in the way that we know, more or less, that a child’s birth will surely follow nine months of pregnancy.

What was essential in their recoveries from the standpoint of their families and caretakers was, first, a willingness to acknowledge a certain powerlessness — We cannot always make our loved ones better by our own power — and, second, a willingness to embrace uncertainty about their ultimate fate — Are they still really ‘with us’? Will they ever fully recover?— yet an even stronger willingness to live hopefully and with the sort of care that could provide an environment for life and for recovery.

Every person intuitively knows in his or her heart that what makes the special people in our lives so special is not what they do for us, but instead who they are. Every person who matters to us is a gift, always unearned, and often unexpected, whose particular value is incalculable and priceless.

Yet our medical culture is designed increasingly to also be an accounting culture, which necessarily introduces some temptation to view those for whom it was originally created to care unconditionally not as gifts, but as products.

In aggregate, this results in treating patients as a sort of raw human material whose potential future worth, just like a rising or falling stock, dictates their present value.

For example, unresponsively wakeful persons are not “attractive investments” in a profit-driven medical and accounting culture, and this means that families facing such a diagnosis will have to be particularly brave in providing the sort of safe havens and environments for potential recovery from which Terri Wallis, Martin Pistorius and Patricia White Bull each benefited in their own way.

For a society wishing to be humane, no “unresponsively wakeful” patient who is not dying can be allowed to fall victim to an imposed death of starvation and dehydration by removal of so-called “artificial” food and water. It is neither a natural nor a simple way to die.

On the other end of the life spectrum, Sheva Givre provides beautiful witness to the basic dignity of every human person, regardless of circumstance, in sharing a lesson from raising her daughter Rozie. In an era of prenatal testing influenced by a utilitarian ethic whose purpose is to end the lives of disabled persons in the womb, girls like Rozie face the same challenge that so many UWS patients face in the eyes of physicians and family decision makers: a label of diminished moral status due to diminished autonomy and physical condition.

Yet Sheva writes: “Raising a child with Down syndrome is wonderful and amazing because having children is wonderful and amazing. It makes you realize that a mother’s love is not based on a child’s ability, but on your own ability to accept and give.”

To be accepted and to receive care and attention is what every person diagnosed UWS deserves in a society that claims to care for the disadvantaged, the underprivileged and the vulnerable.

Ordered home life

One of the things I’ve been wondering about lately is what the “minimum viable” home size for a family of two adults and two children might be. In the spirit of erring on the leaner side, I wonder whether something like an ~800 square foot, 1 BR apartment might work for say, the first ten years of the kids’ lives.

J.D. Roth had me thinking about that just now, after reading his “cluttered lives of middle-class Americans:”

A while ago, I stumbled on a video that documents the work of a group of anthropologists from UCLA. These researchers visited the homes of 32 typical American families. They wanted to look at how people interacted with their environments, at how they used space. They also wanted to look at how dual-income, middle-class families related to their material possessions. They systematically documented the Stuff people own, where they keep it, and how they use it.

This team produced a book called Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, which records their findings. They also produced this twenty-minute video that provides an overview of the results:

“Contemporary U.S. households have more possessions per household than any society in global history,” says Jeanne E. Arnold. That’s both shocking and unsurprising all at once. …

Graesch continues: “We have lots of Stuff. We have many mechanisms by which we accumulate possessions in our home, but we have few rituals or mechanisms or processes for unloading these objects, for getting rid of them.” All of this stuff causes stress. It carries very real physical and emotional tolls.

“The United States has 3.1% of the world’s children but consumes 40% of the world’s toys,” notes Arnold.

I remember reading somewhere that the average American family has something like 300,000+ distinct objects in their home. If our home lives and sizes create that kind of lifestyle by their nature (which is the simplest explanation, isn’t it?) then it seems to me that it’s better to err on the size of a home life that’s smaller and more intimate. At that point, the reduced stress of material possessions and consequent clutter is only a side benefit to the greater good of better and more meaningful human relationships that closeness would engender.

Dependent suburban lifestyles

Johnny Sanphillippo at Granola Shotgun shares the experience of walking through Thousand Oaks, a typical Southern California neighborhood:

I’m just a geek who likes seeing how people occupy the landscape. … I believe our institutions and society are all in a lot of trouble and I’m trying to figure out how to ride out a difficult set of challenges in the not-too-distant future. …

One of the things that the front lawn guy was fired up about was attempts by the state to force all towns to accept infill development and higher densities even when residents didn’t want it. The idea that every home might have a second unit constructed in the back yard or that multi-family buildings would proliferate within subdivisions of single family homes was anathema. I totally understood his concerns. Personally I have no desire to impose such things on anyone. However… many of the homes next door and along his street already had backyard cottages and were, by any measure, already physically “multi-family.”

This house is currently for sale. It’s advertised as having, “a large detached casita with a living area, bedroom, bathroom and separate wet steam room!” The photos show the interior of the casita with a sink, tiled kitchen counters, cabinets, and a standard size refrigerator, but no stove. A stove would make this an illegal and culturally repugnant accessory dwelling unit. But a casita… That’s a luxury guest suite for treasured family and friends.

The 4,900 square foot (455 square meter) main house has five generously proportioned bedrooms each with its own private bath and all are large enough to hold all manner of furniture and activities in addition to a bed. Every bedroom also has an exterior door to the garden. There are two additional baths in the house. The massive kitchen has two breakfast bars. There’s a giant bonus room, home office, wine cellar, laundry… The attached two car garage is supplemented by a detached four car garage and enough driveway space for who knows how many more vehicles. The Google aerial view shows two full size recreational vehicles parked along the side driveway. This “single family home” is actually a small apartment complex in most regards. But as long as only one prosperous family inhabits it… no problem. …

Thousand Oaks has all the symbolism of farm life, minus the productive agriculture and supportive community. And driving everywhere, every day, for everything is mandatory. The residents may not know it, but they’re all just as dependent on the “Nanny State,” multinational corporations, global financial institutions, and just-in-time delivery systems as people living in high rise towers. It’s a great place to live if you like this sort of thing and can afford it. But it’s just as vulnerable to external shocks of all kinds as the urban environment they fear.

He hits on some of the real problems with suburban living, which is that in practice (meaning, on the level of daily, lived experience) you’re (a) less likely to encounter other human beings than in the city (b) less likely to feel the fulfillment that comes from healthy human relationships (c) less able to access neighborhood cultural/educational activities and resources, and (d) more “cooped up” than most city dwellers. To have to drive anywhere to have any of these experiences is a thin sort of independence in theory, and often, in fact, frustrating dependence in practice.

Ringing the bells

Terence Sweeney shares his story of ringing out the church bells of his West Philadelphia church after many silent years:

Our lovely set of named bells ranges from big deep Adolphus (key of E) all the way down to tiny bright Gervaise (F-sharp). Adolphus is larger than a rather more famous bell here in Philadelphia, but he sings of a more perfect liberty. Each note on the scale is represented, but currently two bells—Elizabeth (G-sharp) and Edmund (C-sharp)—are out of commission, making renditions of “Immaculate Mary” or “Fly, Eagles, Fly” a little more difficult. …

Why ring at all? It has been a long time since people set their watches to the noon-day pealing, and we hear of good news and bad by means of phone alerts rather than church chimes. Perhaps we do it in order to make our own contribution to the sound of the city. Daily we hear honking, laughter, sirens, birds, trolleys clanging, and the occasional drum circle. And now we hear the sound of bells, a small reminder that our urban landscape can be a spiritual landscape.

No doubt few people know the Angelus prayer and still fewer pause to pray it at our bidding. But bells remind us of churches, of joy, of loss, and perhaps of more ultimate things. …

One pauses and one hears. Pausing and hearing can be the first step in faith. “Be still and know that I am God,” the psalmist says.

So we ring out in the hope that someone might hear the call and enter. We ring out to add a touch of Christianity to these secular spaces. We ring out the death toll—rich and deep with Adolphus—hoping a college student will hear and suddenly catch on to what John Donne means when he says the bell tolls for us. We let parish children ring the bells so they can feel the reverberating joy of symbols old and new. And sometimes we ring for sheer joy. When the Philadelphia Eagles triumphed in the Super Bowl, amid the cacophony of car horns, shouting fans, fireworks, and the Eagles fight song, joyous sounds came from our bell tower. And a few weeks later, as we finally sang the Gloria on the Easter Vigil, we let them brightly sing out again for the triumph of Christ. God promises a new heaven and a new earth, so we celebrate the lasting joy of the Resurrection, but also the passing excitement of a Super Bowl.

Perhaps the new evangelization begins with such small gestures as the ringing of bells.

To “catch on to what John Donne means when he says the bell tolls for us.”

Newseum visit

Bobby Schindler and I visited EWTN’s Washington bureau this morning to do a short interview on the case of Vincent Lambert, a French man who has been described as “France’s Terri Schiavo”—a man whose wife is petitioning French courts to end his life by denying him food and water, despite him being reliant on no artificial life support. It’ll air on EWTN later this week, and I’ll share if/when it becomes available.

Afterwards, by happy coincidence, I was able to meet up with one of my brothers who was also in Washington today with classmates. I met up with him while he and his group were touring the Newseum. It was my first time there, and after our visit I spent an hour or so taking in the place. Favorites were their Berlin Wall exhibit with watchtower, and their September 11th exhibit which pitch perfect.

Though it was raining off/on the entire day, I checked out the Newseum’s great terrace looking out over Pennsylvania Avenue.

‘Responsibility to Care’

The Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network hosted an event tonight at the Catholic Information Center in Washington. “Responsibility to Care: What Euthanasia Victims Can Teach Us” brought together Bobby Schindler, Wesley J. Smith, and Fr. Thomas Petri for a lively and life-affirming conversation for the fifty or so guests. I snapped this photo toward the end as Rosemary Eldridge closed out the conversation just before the reception. I’ll share audio/video later this week if it becomes available.

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Responsibility to Care: What Euthanasia Victims Can Teach Us

Join Bobby Schindler, M.S., brother of Terri Schiavo and president of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, for an evening of prayer, remembrance, and hope in the face of America’s increasing embrace of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., Vice President and Academic Dean of the Dominican House of Studies will celebrate Mass at 5:30pm.

Following Mass at 6:00pm, Fr. Petri will participate in a lively and life-affirming panel conversation with Bobby Schindler and Wesley J. Smith, JD, National Review Online contributor and author of “Culture of Death: The Age of ‘Do Harm’ Medicine”.

Bobby Schindler will share first-hand experiences and lessons from his fight for his sister Terri, as well as the fights for Charlie Gard, Alfie Evans, Jahi McMath, Vincent Lambert, and others. Fr. Petri and Wesley Smith will share insights on Catholic responses to euthanasia and assisted suicide, as well as latest developments and trends likely to impact all families in the future. Reception to follow event.

 

Consider the lilies

John Muir’s A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf shares the stories of his travel from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, which started in 1867—just two years after the Civil War’s end. Muir was 29 or 30 at the time of the encounter below, near the Cumberland Mountains leaving Tennessee:

As I turned to leave, after bidding her goodbye, she, evidently pitying me for my tired looks, called me back and asked me if I would like a drink of milk. This I gladly accepted, thinking that perhaps I might not be successful in getting any other nourishment for a day or two. Then I inquired whether there were any more houses on the road, nearer than North Carolina, forty or fifty miles away. “Yes,” she said, “it’s only two miles to the next house, but beyond that there are no houses that I know of except empty ones whose owners have been killed or driven away during the war.

Arriving at the last house, my knock at the door was answered by a bright, good-natured, good-looking little woman, who in reply to my request for a night s lodging and food, said, “Oh, I guess so. I think you can stay. Come in and I’ll call my husband.” “But I must first warn you,” I said, “that I have nothing smaller to offer you than a five-dollar bill for my entertainment. I don’t want you to think that I am trying to impose on your hospitality.”

She then called her husband, a blacksmith, who was at work at his forge. He came out, hammer in hand, bare-breasted, sweaty, begrimed, and covered with shaggy black hair. In reply to his wife s statement, that this young man wished to stop over night, he quickly replied, “That’s all right; tell him to go into the house.” He was turning to go back to his shop, when his wife added, ” But he says he has n’t any change to pay. He has nothing smaller than a five-dollar bill.” Hesitating only a moment, he turned on his heel and said, “Tell him to go into the house. A man that comes right out like that beforehand is welcome to eat my bread.”

When he came in after his hard day’s work and sat down to dinner, he solemnly asked a blessing on the frugal meal, consisting solely of corn bread and bacon. Then, looking across the table at me, he said, “Young man, what are you doing down here?” I replied that I was looking at plants. “Plants? What kind of plants?” I said, “Oh, all kinds; grass, weeds, flowers, trees, mosses, ferns,—almost every thing that grows is interesting to me.”

“Well, young man,” he queried, “you mean to say that you are not employed by the Government on some private business?” “No,” I said, “I am not employed by any one except just myself. I love all kinds of plants, and I came down here to these Southern States to get acquainted with as many of them as possible.”

“You look like a strong-minded man,” he replied, “and surely you are able to do something better than wander over the country and look at weeds and blossoms. These are hard times, and real work is required of every man that is able. Picking up blossoms does n’t seem to be a man’s work at all in any kind of times.”

To this I replied, “You are a believer in the Bible, are you not?” “Oh, yes.” “Well, you know Solomon was a strong-minded man, and he is generally believed to have been the very wisest man the world ever saw, and yet he considered it was worth while to study plants; not only to go and pick them up as I am doing, but to study them; and you know we are told that he wrote a book about plants, not only of the great cedars of Lebanon, but of little bits of things growing in the cracks of the walls.

“Therefore, you see that Solomon differed very much more from you than from me in this matter. I’ll warrant you he had many a long ramble in the mountains of Judea, and had he been a Yankee he would likely have visited every weed in the land. And again, do you not remember that Christ told his disciples to ‘consider the lilies how they grow,’ and compared their beauty with Solomon in all his glory? Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ’s? Christ says, ‘Consider the lilies.’ You say, ‘Don’t consider them. It isn’t worthwhile for any strong-minded man.’”

This evidently satisfied him, and he acknowledged that he had never thought of blossoms in that way before. He repeated again and again that I must be a very strong-minded man, and admitted that no doubt I was fully justified in picking up blossoms. He then told me that although the war was over, walking across the Cumberland Mountains still was far from safe on account of small bands of guerrillas who were in hiding along the roads, and earnestly entreated me to turn back and not to think of walking so far as the Gulf of Mexico until the country be came quiet and orderly once more.

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Dockless bikeshare

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The first time I used dockless bikeshare was in November visiting Notre Dame, where LimeBike has a presence. It was a great experience, much better than my experience with Citibike or Indego bikeshare that require trips to/from stationary docks.

Rome also had bikeshare, and though I planned to take an early morning ride along the Tiber that never happened. But it would have been simple enough to use them, and simple enough to leave them wherever I decided to end the trip.

It’s the space for chance and normal use that makes dockless so much better. They’re much less “tourist” gimmicks compared to docked bikeshare, where you’ll sit with a map and familiarize yourself with the various stations along whatever pre-planned route you are taking, and much closer to regular bikes of the sort you might own. You use them and leave them where you need to. And someone else eventually picks up from where you left off. Simple.

I hope Philadelphia starts adding dockless into their bikeshare mix in the next few years.