Getting Beyond Amusement: Three Habits of True Leisure

Amusement: So deeply ingrained in our current culture is the obsession with entertainment as amusement that we have begun to think that it is natural to human life. There are many reasons for this modern obsession with amusements, but one important dynamic seems to be our need for escape and distraction.

In his song “The Piano Man,” Billy Joel captures this sense of distraction: “Cause he knows that it’s me they’ve been coming to see to forget about life for a while.” We too often see our free time as amusements to escape from reality rather than rediscovering ourselves and thinking about who we were created to be.

The very word “amusement” reveals a deeper level of our modern problem. The word comes from the Muses, Greek goddesses who were divine patrons of the liberal arts. The Muses were sources of refreshment and inspiration to those under their influence, stirring up the intelligence and the imagination—whatever helped humans to remember who they were and to understand the world.

But when we put the letter “a” in front of a word it negates it. Thus, to be a theist is to believe in God, whereas to be an atheist is to deny God’s existence. Wiktionary defines amuse as “to stare stupidly” at something. This is my wife’s description of me as I watch television.

Paradoxically, when leisure is reduced to amusement it fails to give us rest; we become restless. After a bout of binging on Netflix or video games we find ourselves dis-eased, or, what has become the worst state possible, bored. Just as too much sleep makes us tired, sluggish, and apathetic, so also too much entertainment makes us anxious.

How sad it is, then, that amusement forms of leisure are our default mode. As soon as we have a moment of free time we go to the screen, whether smartphone, computer or TV, thinking to find refreshment; and when we are finished, we feel anxious, bored, or vaguely guilty, knowing that we should have been doing something else.

Leisure: True leisure, however, is something different than amusement or entertainment. It is an attitude of the mind and a condition of the soul that fosters a capacity to receive the reality of the world. This receptivity creates a contemplative outlook that presumes not that we have constructed or achieve something, but that we have been given a gift, a gift of life that reflect God’s design for us and the world.

This receptivity is ever new, unpredictable, and never settled, and it has the capacity to surprise us, to produce wonder along with the fear that we might need to change our ways of thought and action.

At the heart of leisure are times of silence, prayer, Mass, as well as deep listening in conversations, play, and study. Each of these moments are often not earth-shattering, but they gradually form a habit of openness to our place in creation. They can help us to be prepared for sickness, the acceptance of criticism and failure, our own limitations whether intellectual, emotional or physical, the death of a loved one so that these difficult experiences lead us not to be bitter but better. Over a life, these moments of leisure, of receptivity and acceptance, can bring us profound growth, even more so than our achievements and accomplishments, in who we were created to be.

This kind of leisure needs to be habitual rather than the occasional act. We are in great need of habits of receptivity, leisure and rest that root us in a contemplative life and enable us to give of ourselves in our active lives. There are three important habits of leisure that our faith fosters:

  • The habit of silence: daily silence where our emotional tapes that have been playing for years can cease and where we can hear again the wisdom that “deafens every fool.” As Josef Pieper once put it, “only the silent hear.”
  • The habit of celebration: a weekly Sabbath where, the Lord’s Day is not reduced to an hour but to a whole day. Become a techno-sabbatarian. Turn off your device. If you can’t then it owns you rather than you owning it.
  • The habit of fraternity: going to the margins to be with those who are unproductive, who lack power, but who have another sort of power over us, a power, like little else, that confronts who we really are.

All of us are tempted by bad habits of amusement. I have spent more time than I should surfing channels in a rather mindless way at the end of the day. But the Lord is asking us to go beyond our amusements, those things we stare stupidly at, and develop habits of true leisure, in receiving and accepting what He wants of us.

Dr. Michael Naughton
Dr. Michael Naughton
Dr. Michael Naughton is the director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota, US) where he holds the Koch Chair in Catholic Studies and is a full professor in the department of Catholic Studies. He also taught in the College of Business for over 20 years. Author, co-author and co-editor of 10 books and over 50 articles. His most recent book is Getting Work Right: Labor and Leisure in a Fragmented World (2019). He also serves as board chair for Reell Precision Manufacturing with plants and offices in the US, Europe and Asia.

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