[Editor’s note: Today’s post is an excerpt of a new book about work and vocation: Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure by Nancy Nordenson (Kalos Press). Finding Livelihood takes a creative nonfiction approach to exploring the multiple, often conflicting, calls we experience and must navigate. Nancy will be speaking at our Fridays @ 4 event this Friday, November 6.]
When you look at the face of a worker, wrote Josef Pieper, what you see is effort and stress becoming permanently etched. I’ve been reading and re-reading Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture for a book group called “Sophia,” because like the Greeks, this group seeks wisdom. I think it’s true what is said, that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. It’s also true that when you set your mind on a search, posit a question, you can’t help but start seeing clues.
Years before, someone whose opinion I respect recommended the book, and in a spirit of dutiful response, I checked it out of my local library. The book was small with a worn gold hardcover, no dust jacket, and yellowed pages. Copyright 1952. I had flipped from page to page, dipping here and there into the dense writing. I’ll skip it, I thought. To read this book would take too much time in a schedule filled with too much work. I already knew what it said, didn’t I? That it was in periods of leisure, among people who could afford leisure, that the extras that pushed society forward arose. The discoveries of geometry and calculus came about from men with time on their hands, not from men laboring deep down in a mine. The exquisite textiles that now hang in museums were woven by hands not otherwise occupied stirring gruel. I knew these pieces of history. It wasn’t hard to extrapolate the principle to the present. The book was as good as read without completing a single full paragraph. I returned the book to the library long before its due date.
Now, here for the book group was a newer edition, softcover with bright white pages. After reading it cover to cover, I realized my assumptions about it and its concepts of leisure had been all wrong. Pieper, a twentieth century German philosopher, published this book in 1948 after having first delivered portions of it as two lectures in 1947, just after the end of World War II. He wasn’t concerned with shoring up an eroding cultural foundation by advancing geometry and calculus or filling museums with textiles or tools of scientific discovery. Neither did he care about Caribbean cruises and hammocks and umbrella drinks, or rounds of golf or dinner for four at eight. Here was a man pleading with a world of people whose noses were to the grindstone rebuilding businesses, homes, and lives destroyed by the war. Eyes on the job, all hands on deck, preached the day’s motivational speakers, betting on productivity and utility to calm the turbulence. In contrast, Pieper pleaded: “pierce the canopy” that work forms over your life and transcend “the work-a-day world.” Allow “the totality of existing things to come into play: God and the World,” he wrote.
Why this message, this urgency?
To be human.
Start in the world and go up, urged Pieper. True leisure is “a condition of the soul.” True leisure is stillness, contemplation, passivity, receptivity, celebration, worship, wonder, mystery, and grace. A Sabbath intervention. These are words I can wrap myself in and relax with. Find, grab hold of, hang on to, defend to the last, this reflective posture, I tell myself, and you find the canopy’s needed spear.
[This is an excerpt of a chapter from Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure by Nancy J. Nordenson, Kalos Press, 2015. Used with permission.]
Nancy Nordenson is a freelance medical writer and also the author of Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure (Kalos Press, 2015), a contemplative exploration of the split calls that comprise a working life. Nancy lives in Minneapolis; she blogs at www.nancynordenson-markings.com.