Fr Nathan Rawlins
As we enter into another lockdown again (6 MORE weeks?!), perhaps like me you have learned or realised the need for balance in our everyday life. Finding ourselves even more contained in our homes than earlier on in the Pandemic, there is a mounting pressure to be ‘productive’ during this quarantine. A sort of despotic expectation that by the time COVID-19 has finally gone away we will have learned another language, studied a degree online, read War and Peace (twice), repainted the house, re-landscaped the garden, written a novel, gotten ripped for summer early and a host of other things, all the while working full time from home.
It is unrealistic and I suspect a fruit of our Australian addiction to utilitarianism. We feel that we have to justify our use of the time given to us to those around us, lest we be seen as wasteful at upcoming ‘Post-Corona’ dinner parties and catch ups when we will inevitably be asked “So, what did you do during the Corona Virus Lockdowns?”. In contrast to the apathetic ‘Binge-Watching’ culture that says all we can do is watch re-runs of TV at this time, the ‘Hustle Culture’ suggests that if Isaac Newton could discovery gravity and William Shakespeare could write King Lear in lockdown, we should be just as equally productive.
The 8-hour movement fought for “8 hours of Work, 8 hours of Rest, 8 hours of Recreation”. I have a feeling that in 2020, perhaps it is the last one we have forgotten about? It is difficult to get away from reminders to work and rest – we have diaries and calendars riddled with Zoom Meetings and watches that track our sleep – but do we ensure we take time for recreation? Do we take time, set aside blocks of time in our diary, for play?
We instinctively baulk at the suggestion more often than not. Play is for children! Recreation is for free-time and I do not have any free time because ‘more important’ or more useful things must take priority! There are always emails to respond to, meetings to attend, orders to process, paperwork to be done. So, looking over the 86,400 seconds I have in a day, I need to capitalise on each one – lest it be wasteful or worse, I seem dispensable. The busier I am, the more indispensable I must be; the more important my work is, the more important I am.
When we are caught up in judging our value by our productivity or when our sense of self-worth is dependent on what job we do, it then becomes very easy to justify to yourself that cutting back of things that you like and time for rest. The famous parable of Jesus becomes, ‘The harvest is rich, but the labourers are few. So, ask the labourers to increase their productivity and take up the work of ten labourers each, because the harvest is more important than the individual labourer’. This is indeed proud and dangerous because to refuse sleep, holidays, sabbaticals, friendships and time set aside for inward renewal is not the sign of industriousness and sanctity, but insecurity and stupidity.
The Church also reminds us that contrary to the economic and cultural understandings of our time, the value and dignity of the human person lies in being created in the image and likeness of God, not in what they create or produce. Our value lies in who we are, not what we do. As my first year formator at the seminary constantly reminded me (at that time a young, insolently pseudo-pragmatic, workaholic headed towards burnout) “We are human-beings, not human-doings”.
Play reminds us that there is more to life than work and sleep on repeat. Sure – God does not need to rest, time to eat, time with friends, time to sleep or periods of relaxation; but I am not God and I certainly do need those things!
It is the same for all of us – whether we are a plumber or a priest, a teacher or a computer technician, a neurosurgeon or a nun – the balance of life is utterly critical. We need rest, we need work and we need relaxation. After all, just as much as we need to rest for our bodies, we need to recharge our minds and souls as well.
The Angelic Doctor comes to our aid here as well- St Thomas Aquinas reminds us in the Summa that,
“Just as man needs bodily rest for the body's refreshment, because he cannot always be at work, since his power is finite and equal to a certain fixed amount of labour, so too is it with his soul, whose power is also finite and equal to a fixed amount of work.” (ST II-II Q. 168, Art. 2)”
Just as much as we practice and train ourselves in various virtues, perhaps we also need to grow in what St Thomas Aquinas assigns the virtue of Eutrapelia – the virtue of playfulness and pleasantness.
We know what happens when we don’t. If we don’t take time for relaxation and play, we become the bane of our friendship circles. We become the perpetually working and physically present but emotionally absent parent who makes time with the family seem like a chore. We become the priest who is telling people about the ‘Joy of the Gospel’, but looks not fully alive himself (and arguably the worst vocations advertisement out there). We find ourselves at parties or celebrations getting irritated and bored by those people who need to tell you how hard they are working; how necessary their job is and constantly fishing for kudos from others for how hard they seem to be working, but can’t seem to talk about anything else.
As St Thomas Aquinas (whose holiness is at such enviable heights that he can only bring himself to give a sassy response to something if he can quote others in order to do it) puts it:
“Wherefore Seneca says: ‘Let your conduct be guided by wisdom so that no one will think you rude, or despise you as a cad.’ Now a man who is without mirth, not only is lacking in playful speech, but is also burdensome to others, since he is deaf to the moderate mirth of others. Consequently, they are vicious, and are said to be boorish or rude, as the Philosopher (Aristotle) states (Ethic. iv, 8).”
Not exactly a great description of Christians called to sanctify, evangelise and restore the world to Christ by their lives!
If we book in meetings and time for exercise in our diary, set alarms to remind us to go to bed at a particular time and track our sleep with watches and gadgets, perhaps we also need to take care to ensure that there is space in the day for us to play.
Some parents have shared with me their realisation that we need to play with our children – not for their sake, but ours. We need to catch up with friends, to get online and game together, to relax with a book or spend time in nature because it refreshes our souls and minds – sure, so that we can continue to work, but more importantly, be fully alive and not just settle for existing. Cultivating the virtue of Eutrapelia and making time to ‘play’ may very well be the most practical self-care we do today if we want to make our lives a life-long, sustainable sacrifice to the Lord and a quiet counter-cultural rebellion in the face of a society that determines our value by our productivity.
Fr Nathan Rawlins is Assistant Priest at St Peter's Epping.