Of Presidential Vacations and Diminished Leisure

Posted today in Tikkun Daily

At a time when too many people are out of work and too many others are holding down two or three jobs just to survive, it might seem a bit frivolous to lament the lost art of leisure. But leisure—restorative time—is a basic human need. And fewer people are getting the benefit of it, apparently even when they’re on paid vacations.

A new Harris survey finds that more than half of all U.S. employees planned to work during their summer vacations this year—up six percent from the previous year. (Email is a prime suspect in this crime against leisure.) Soon enough, all of us will be taking presidential-style vacations like the one starting tomorrow. That’s when the Obamas arrive on Martha’s Vineyard, no doubt just in time for the president’s first briefing on national security.

In my mind, no one has gone to the philosophical and theological heart of this matter more tellingly than the German American thinker Josef Pieper in his 1952 classic, Leisure: the Basis of Culture.

“The provision of … leisure is not enough; it can only be fruitful if man himself is capable of leisure,” he wrote. In Pieper’s book, workaholics are not the only ones who might be leisure challenged. Some of the most avid vacationers, with clear goals in mind for their getaways, might also be missing the point.

To understand why, one must appreciate the degree to which leisure is a state of mind, “a condition of the soul,” as Pieper styled it. And part of that soul of leisure is effortlessness. “Man seems to distrust everything that is effortless … he refuses to have anything as a gift,” he explained, resting on St. Thomas Aquinas’s teaching that virtue resides in “the good rather than the difficult.”

Those looking for useful tips on how to get more out of their leisure will not find them in Pieper’s meditations. Leisure is not something we do to “get” anything, in fact. According to him, it is worthwhile in itself, not merely a means toward an end.

Examples of such leisure are beside the point, because it’s not so much the activities as the spirit one brings to them. “Messing about” was how G.K. Chesterton put it. So a Chestertonian leisure activity could be almost anything—say, tennis. But the purpose wouldn’t be to “work on my backhand,” as they say.

What is the ultimate form of leisure? Pieper’s answer is not what many would give, including those of us who have experienced the unrest of being with fidgety children in a house of prayer. But for Pieper, the very image of leisure is divine worship.

Celebrating God in a holy place is leisure at its most sublime because it’s something we do purely for its own sake (or else it is not divine worship), Pieper taught. He explained that when people are truly at leisure, they are transported beyond the workaday world into another realm. And this is what transpires in the rituals, he submitted: “Man is carried away by it, thrown into ecstasy.” I’d call it a “mystical” realm or simply a “restorative” one before I’d say “ecstatic.”

It’s getting harder to plumb those depths of leisure, even if you’re blessed with paid vacation time (and increasing numbers of Americans are not). Still trickier, it doesn’t really work if you’re trying. …read more

Cliff Deal: An Answer to Whose Prayers?

Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black

While surfing cable channels during the fiscal-cliff clatter of New Year’s Eve afternoon, I couldn’t help but wonder about one news ticker in particular: “Senate Chaplain Prays for Fiscal Cliff Deal.” Did the chaplain believe that God has a position on whether there should be a deal before midnight January 1, as distinct from an agreement that would surely materialize some days or weeks after going off the cliff? And if the divine will were to cut so finely, how would he, who is not divine, know?

Then I looked up the story behind the ticker, which did more justice to the prayer offered up by Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black.

A former Navy chaplain and Seventh-Day Adventist minister, Black didn’t exactly go over the theological cliff by invoking God’s endorsement of the Biden-McConnell plan. The chaplain gazed at the edge. He asked God to “lift them”—lawmakers—“from the darkness and hopelessness” of those hours at the fiscal cliff. “May they take the tide that leads to fortune, rather than risk a national voyage bound in shadows and in miseries,” he intoned.

Other than perhaps the good reverend, whose prayers were answered by the deal struck before midnight and approved later by the Senate and House?

It’s in the nature of a political compromise that there’s no simple answer to that question. But among those who might be a bit relieved are the hard-working, low-earning Americans who receive so-called “refundables” at tax time. That’s a word you probably didn’t see in the news tickers.

This particular story goes back to the Bush tax cuts—which were not quite as lopsided as many liberals believe. While these packages delivered the greatest goodies to the rich, they also included expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor and the child tax credit. Both of those are refundable, meaning that the government will cut you a check if you qualify but don’t earn enough to pay federal income taxes. The Obama administration further expanded the refundable credits in 2009.

Set to expire at the start of 2013, the credits were tucked into the final cliff-averting agreement. That’s big, especially if you earn a small income.

The mother of all refundables, the Earned Income Tax Credit, can deliver a few thousand dollars a year to hard-pressed workers and their families. Kathy A. Saile, who handles domestic policy issues for the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops, recently gave me a view of this from down below the middle class. She previously served as a case manager at a homeless shelter in Phoenix, where many of the residents commuted to jobs, in some cases two or three of them. Saile told me in a telephone conversation in November that this credit alone often “made the difference between families staying in the shelter and getting on their feet” and into their own apartments.

Referring also to the refundable per-child credit, she noted: “The Church has always been a strong supporter of these tax credits, because they’re pro-work, and they’re pro-family, and they help get people out of poverty.”

True, but clambering out of poverty will also be a little harder for many people, in another respect. Cliff negotiators choose not to salvage the payroll tax cuts enacted during Obama’s first term, cuts that kept hundreds of dollars in the pockets of struggling workers. And that is one reason why the deal is a mixed blessing for those Americans who are always dangling precariously off the cliff. …read more

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