What I Didn’t Do On My Summer Vacation

It’s official: leisure has gone the way of the leisure suit. At least according to […]

David Zahl / 8.29.13

michael-jackson-working-day-and-night-epicIt’s official: leisure has gone the way of the leisure suit. At least according to an excellent “long read” by Jenny Diski in The New Statesman, “Learning How to Live”, which explores the question of why we find free time so terrifying. If it sounds like an essay-length rumination on DFW’s brilliant observation about muzak in The Pale King, it’s not far off. But you don’t have to read her piece or wade through The Pale King to confirm the truth of what she’s saying. Just ask any sixth-grader on the East Coast what they did over the summer. You will hear a litany of activities and camps and programs so regimented that you will immediately want to take a nap (or grab some coffee and write a blogpost). Ask an adult about their summer and you will hear (or hear yourself saying!) how the summer just flew by, how it was good-but-full, how you can’t believe the Fall is already here, and weren’t we supposed to feel more rested? Maybe you went away, you even hit the beach, but you brought your phone with you–you know, in case of emergency–and big mistake. Maybe the cabin finally got wi-fi, and can you blame a guy for wanting to get his money’s worth? The Internet doesn’t take a vacation, after all.

After hearing myself and others drone on about how un-restful their summers were–people who for the most part have the means and opportunity to take a week or two off every year (and take it)–the only conclusion a person can draw is that many of us who claim to want some downtime are either 1. lying or 2. in the grip of something stronger than themselves. I highly doubt this is conscious in most cases–we certainly think we want to “get away from it all,” but if we really wanted to do so, we would have. There are steps that could have been taken, devices that could have been left at home. Unoccupied time is simply too uncomfortable. Joss Whedon talks about this in terms of  “avoiding the void”, Tim Kreider takes the “busy trap” angle, Tullian Tchividijian speaks about it as performancism. Whatever name you use, when there is no distinction between what we do and who we are, “not doing” is tantamount to “not being”, i.e., if we’re not working or achieving, we’re dead, and nothing is scarier than that. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and Diski’s a much better writer. This first excerpt comes from the section where she discusses how we answer the “What do you do?” question at a party:


What if as you use the phrase “I used to [. . .]” your own heart sinks, or your psyche panics at the idea that you might not be what you think yourself to be? Or that what you think yourself to be crumbles into nameless dread at the thought that you are not being what you are doing? The party questioner is only you (or me) on another day, wondering how on earth we are to get through the rest of our time as conscious beings without the reassurance that we are a writer, a teacher, a taxi driver, a parent.

Driving ambition might just be a way of staving off the vacuum, rather than a sign of bottomless greed for more when you have enough. An unquenchable passion for work might be a panic-stricken way of concealing the fear of a lack of passion for life itself. If you are what you do, what are you when you stop doing it and you still are? There are people who don’t find this a problem, who have not entirely or even at all identified existence with what they do and how they make a living, but they are evidently a great problem to those – the majority –who do…

Theologically speaking, this is bread-and-butter for those who see justification as central to both life and Christianity. That doesn’t mean work is the only place we look for value and distraction though; pretty much all identity markers can be boiled down to function this way, both the facile ones like appearance and wealth and the less facile ones ones like family and religion. These are things we implicitly believe we can get right or wrong–sources of righteousness, and as such, unquenchable laws, taskmasters that by their very nature cannot be satisfied. One of the ironies here is that the very historical movement that was centered around “justification by grace through faith” is the one that sociologists have traditionally credited with amplifying the “justification by work(s)” operating philosophy that has so infected the West. Rest assured, the mindset pre-dates the 16th century:

Max Weber and R H Tawney would claim the work-ethic-as-self-worth idea behind the virtuous labouring discourse to be the cultural property of the Protestant Reformation. In the north/south religious divide it does, roughly speaking, keep to the same side as Protestantism. It can’t be only the lack of sunshine that prevents us in the more northern parts of the western hemisphere from enjoying and benefiting from those civilized siestas and mañanas that punitive economists partly blame for the Greek, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese financial crises. If we’re going delving, there’s also Adam (and all of us), punished for his disobedience by having to work hard for a living, as well as the first deadly rivalry between the farmer Cain and the herder Abel, each striving to have God favour his produce over his brother’s. Not such an honest and decent family, that original one. Working hard to earn a living may go back to the very beginning, but it was called the Fall for a reason, and it signaled the opposite of an ideal way of life…

As a sidenote, this is why we must be very careful about the current trend in certain circles toward developing a “theology of work”, lest we baptize yet another source of self-justification (or worse!) by giving it a religious terminology.


I never doubted that retirement killed my grandfather. I did wonder sometimes why his devotion to work unto death was considered a virtue. It was never explained, as if it were self-evident, although frequently the story would be told to me as an improving tale when I had failed to complete some task or activity – regardless of its lack of efficacy on my own father, who was a criminal conman…

Generally there isn’t very much evidence of joyful retirement even among the elite… It has always seemed to me that even those with the most worldly and desirable or admirable successes in their working life end up disappointed. How can it be otherwise? Although people fantasize the immense satisfaction of certain achievements, I would guess that if that is what you actually did with your life (whatever the achievement was), when it comes towards the end, it never seems to be quite enough, or the right thing, or what or how you really meant it to be.

Leisure, not doing, is so terrifying in our culture that we cut it up into small, manageable chunks throughout our working year in case an excess of it will drive us mad, and leave the greatest amount of it to the very end, in the half-conscious hope that we might be saved from its horrors by an early death.

If this all sounds a bit theoretical, it is anything but. In fact, just last week I was speaking to a man who had experienced enough success in his career to retire early, but after a month or so on the farm, had come up with an excuse to go back to work, despite the fierce protestations of his splintering family and exasperated doctor. He spoke about not wanting to be put out to pasture, as though productivity and vitality were the same thing. For him, as for many others, a conflation of the two was not even a question. This isn’t to say that work isn’t a part of who we are; of course it is. But you don’t have to be a religious person to believe that there is far more to life–and ourselves–than what we do or don’t do. This man had become synonymous with his ‘vocation’, and it was causing everyone around him quite a bit of pain, himself most of all. Sitting still was simply not an option. He needed to be active both to know he was alive and to forget he was going to die.

We tend to frame identity-related anxiety as having to do primarily with fear of failure, of not being enough, AKA existential guilt. But Diski would seem to indicate that it has just as much to do with fear of death, our frantic doing being a hedge against oblivion and our finitude. But perhaps these fears are not as distinct as they may seem. Which would make sense, especially if death represents the judgment that the Bible claims it does. In this light, workaholics are just that much more afraid of death… Yet as many hours as we put in, as booked as we keep ourselves, we cannot control our identity any more than we can control the color of our skin or who our parents are. In fact, the more we try to, the unhappier we become; when control is driving the bus, fear and anxiety are usually the first passengers. I realize we’re in broken-record territory, but hey, that’s kind of the point.

The problem is a universal one, namely, that we seem to have no control over our need for control. Everyone knows that achievement doesn’t bring peace, but that doesn’t seem to stop any of us from trying to make it do so. Perhaps this is what is meant when people talk about being saved from themselves. And if you’ll forgive the armchair psychology, one can’t help but wonder if skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression are linked in some way to this decrease in leisure. That is, if we do everything in our power to avoid feeling our negative emotions, they only grow, do they not?


The hope here is not that we would come to recognize or understand this futility enough to change our thinking. Awareness, as we all know, only goes so far; the issue runs deeper. The hope is the same hope as always, what Robert Capon articulated so beautifully in Kingdom Grace and Judgment, i.e. hope in the one who raises those who are dead–in their trespasses or in their careers or just simply in their bodies. Which is really just another way of saying, enjoy the three-day weekend…:

If the world could have lived its way to salvation, it would have, long ago. The fact is that it can only die its way there, lose its ways there. (pg 222)

For Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, improve the improvable, or correct the correctable; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life of those who will take their stand on a death he can use instead of on a life he cannot. (pg 317)