Is it ironic that we rest on Labor Day? Not at all argues Cal Schroder in his essay Towards a Rehabilitation of Uselessness.
I had spent the past week roughing-in and hauling service cable through four levels of apartments in humid ninety degree weather when I was asked if I would like to contribute an article on Rest and Leisure. This struck me as an excellent opportunity to rest from work and work on Rest. When I considered where to begin such a reflection, I recalled a scene from a 90’s cult-classic about the maddening effects of daily office life at a software company. In the scene, the protagonist Peter muses to his friends about how he ended up in their sterile, cubicled prison. Their dialogue goes something like this:
Peter: Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us, “What would you do if you had a million dollars and didn’t need to work?” And whatever you answered was supposed to be your career.
Friend: What did you say?
Peter: I never had an answer. I guess that’s why I work here.
Friend: No, you’re working here because that question is complete nonsense. If everyone listened to her, there would be no janitors, because no one with a million dollars is going to clean up after someone else.
Aside from a laugh, Peter’s question offers a helpful starting point for a reflection on rest. His question is: “What would you do if you didn’t have to work?” There are two things we should consider about this exchange. First, Peter has difficulty even providing an answer. Second, how would we answer it?
“Work, Spare time, and Leisure”
Peter’s inability to discern any worthwhile pursuits beyond work is not unique. Earlier in the twentieth century, the German philosopher Josef Pieper had already noted a widespread deterioration in the understanding of leisure and work. In his essay “Work, Spare Time, and Leisure”, Pieper wrote:
We are ignorant of how the concept of leisure is understood in the accumulated wisdom of our Western cultural and existential tradition… We must understand that a total and final disintegration of the concept of “leisure”, a basic concept of traditional Western thinking, will have a clear historical consequence; namely, the totalitarian work state.
Though we have seen the fall of the Soviet Union, we still live in a world that idolizes work; it often conflates leisure with laziness and measures time in terms of productivity. Even the way we talk betrays this fact. We speak of “free time”, “spare time”, or “time off”. Free of what? Left over from what? Off from what? Work. Work has become the fundamental reference point in our lives; we define other periods of time in terms of their relation to work.
But the solution to this is not to insist on more spare time for workers. As Pieper notes, spare time is not leisure. “Recreation, entertainment, amusement,” all these are examples of “mere respite from work, for more work.” They still are at the service of work. We need to rekindle the spirit of celebration, which, while it acknowledges work to be meaningful, declares that we work in order to do something other than work. We work in order that we may have leisure.
A Defense of Uselessness
If we can pass this first difficulty, if we are able to recapture rest and leisure time, what should we do with it? “What would you do if you didn’t have to work?” I suspect that if we answered that question honestly, we would have many people engaged in useless enterprises. And that’s good.
Allow me to clarify. It may help to see what I mean by “useless” if we recall the positive form of the word “useful”. What does it mean to be useful? Something that is useful is desirable not for its own sake, but for the sake of something else. For example, a hammer is useful if I need to pound in a nail or put a quick hole in some drywall. But if I need to cut or saw something, the hammer is useless. The hammer is desirable because of the end I have in mind. Consider another example; a job is also a useful thing. You want a job so that you can earn money; you want money so that you can buy food and drink; you want food and drink so that you can celebrate with your friends. Each item in this chain of desires points to something beyond it.
Now, as can be seen, useful things are good. They help us to accomplish whatever we may have in mind. But they cannot be the only good things. If they were, we could never rest. Think about it: we would always desire something else. There would be an infinite chain of desires! “I want this job so that I can make money, and I want the money for this car, and I want the car to attract these people, and I want to attract these people to…and, … and … and!” In order to end this chain, we need to recognize that ultimately we desire useless things. Remember, by “useless” I do not mean lazy or worthless. I mean the opposite of what I termed “useful”. Whereas something useful is desirable for the sake of another thing, something useless is sought for its own sake. In this sense of the word, useless things don’t point to anything beyond them. We desire them because of what they are.
In a previous example, I stated that you may desire a job in order to earn money, buy food and drinks, and celebrate with friends. But why do you desire to celebrate with friends? Is it because you desire the happiness of a life with friends? But why do you desire that? Not for anything else, but because such a thing is desirable in itself. Only in useless things do our desires finally find rest.
Let’s return to Peter’s question: what would we do if we didn’t have to work? What do we do simply because it fulfills us? What activities do we turn to when our needs have been met? I can tell you what I would do if I didn’t have to work. I would start a game of soccer; I would listen to a concert; I would pick up one of the books I’ve been longing to read; I would take some time to appreciate beauty in art and nature; I would take some time for silence; I would go to Mass; I would find an opportunity to celebrate with my friends. Sports, music, art, literature, wisdom, worship, friendship – these are the things for which we were created and in which we rest.
In my own life, I have managed to avoid the totalitarian work state. While I enjoy my apprenticeship, every trade has its menial tasks. I dig trenches if I have to. I haul cable when I am asked to. I wire devices because I need to. I make myself useful. But when work is finished, I go home and practice being useless.