In Praise of Leisure

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Oct 04, 2014

“He enjoys true leisure who has time to improve his soul’s estate.”
Henry David Thoreau

According to a Greek legend, in ancient Athens a man noticed the great storyteller Aesop playing childish games with some little boys. He laughed and jeered at Aesop, asking him why he wasted his time in such frivolous activity.

Aesop responded by picking up a bow, loosening its string, and placing it on the ground. Then he said to the critical Athenian, “Now, answer the riddle, if you can. Tell us what the unstringed bow implies.”

The man looked at it for several moments but had no idea what point Aesop was trying to make. Aesop explained, “If you keep a bow always bent, it will break eventually; but if you let it go slack, it will be more fit for use when you want it.”

Summer is the perfect time to ponder the whole idea of rest and leisure. Life can still be busy and the tasks can still be demanding but when the sun comes up earlier and goes down later, there is a change of pace which permeates all of life. 

A simple dictionary definition of leisure would be “the opportunity offered by free time to do something” or it is “time when you are not working; time when you can do whatever you want to do.” 

I like the story of the man who challenged another to an all-day wood chopping contest. The challenger worked very hard, stopping only for a brief lunch break. The other man had a leisurely lunch and took several breaks during the day. At the end of the day, the challenger was surprised and annoyed to find that the other fellow had chopped substantially more wood than he had.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “Every time I checked, you were taking a rest, yet you chopped more wood than I did.”

“But you didn’t notice,” said the winning woodsman, “that I was sharpening my ax when I sat down to rest.” 

No wonder in Stephen R. Covey’s well known book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” habit #7 is “Sharpen the Saw” which encourages the reader toward “continuous improvement in both personal and interpersonal spheres of influence.”

Leonardo Da Vinci knew this also when he said, “Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer. Go some distance away because then the work will seem smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen.” 

Leisure means different things for different people. I cannot imagine that landscape experts would find backyard flower gardening a source of personal renewal. Nor do I think that a professional photographer would find taking pictures something to do on one’s day off. Leisure and rest are uniquely personal.

Over the years Evie and I have discovered all kinds of ways to “sharpen the saw.” When our children were still at home our activities focused on them. We still talk about that little pop-up camper we pulled behind our van as we almost reached our goal to visit all of the lower 48 states. We made it to 43. 

Now, we love traveling and antiquing and reading and cooking and just being together exploring something new and doing something we have never done. 

We must remember that “rest is not idleness,” as Sir John Lubbock said. “And to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.” Stephen King said, “A change is as good as a rest.”

Yes, in a world where work is a virtue, we must never forget the words of the well-known Quaker, George Fox who said, “Carry some quiet around inside thee.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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