Can Culture Thrive in the Midst of Busyness?

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Maybe we’re too busy to have culture.

I’m in a particularly busy phase in my own life as I start a family and build a career. Of course, I find value in each of my tasks. But sometimes I wonder if I need to adjust my mindset. I find my mind buzzing with various strains of thought, to-do lists, worries, and calculations that combine into a cacophony in my head. Add to this the speed, blur, whiz, static, pop, blaze, and noise of modern technological life: We fly along at 65 mph on our commutes, we insert cataracts of sound into our ears with headphones, we hypnotize ourselves with screens, and we tune our radios to the invisible voices in the air. We seem to dread silence or stillness.

“So what?” some say. “This is a tired old complaint. It’s time to get over it and embrace the new normal. We already know modern technology and high-speed lifestyles are a bit chaotic. This is a part of human life. Things might be busy, but look how the standard of living has risen in the last hundred years.”

To some extent, the critics are right. Though the modern lifestyle may have aggravated the struggle, human life has always been a battle between the passing and the enduring, the temporal and the eternal.  In her Plough article “What is Time For?,” Zena Hitz describes St. Augustine experiencing a similar barrage of busyness way back in the fourth century. But she hints that Augustine was using the busyness as an excuse to avoid wrestling with challenging questions like “What is the best way to live?” Or as Hitz’s article asks, “What is time for?”

Flying along the freeway at 65 mph is extremely efficient. We’ve nailed efficiency. But efficiency toward accomplishing what, exactly? We save lots of time with our technologies. But what is all that extra time for? Instagram? The Xbox?

Josef Pieper, a German Catholic philosopher, would say it is for leisure. This is the case he made in his seminal work, Leisure, the Basis of Culture. As the title implies, Pieper sees leisure as the indispensable prerequisite to true culture. Of course, true leisure doesn’t mean mere time killing; rather, it is the highpoint and consummation of human life—the thing that all the work we do is for.

In Hitz’s words, “The leisure that is necessary for human beings is not just a break from real life, a place where we rest and restore ourselves in order to go back to work. What we are after is a state that looks like the culmination of a life.” What is this culmination? According to Peiper, the core of leisure is contemplation and celebration of the world, each other, and what we’ve been given.

This is the foundation of culture because it is the foundation of both art and community. Without a spirit of celebration, people don’t come together. Without a spirit of celebration, people don’t make beautiful things. In another work, Only the Lover Sings, Pieper says that “all forms of ‘liberal’ activities, above all in the area of the arts, are essentially of a festive nature as long as they contain at least some remote echo of that fundamental attitude of acceptance [of the universe].”

But to have a spirit of accepting and celebrating what is, one must first contemplate it. This requires silence, stillness, and a careful looking. Pieper writes in Leisure that “Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.” We miss much of what is worth celebrating, and thus worth building culture around, through sheer busyness. As Wordsworth laments in a famous sonnet:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not.

Hitz further describes the futility of a life that is not built around true leisure but rather around getting and spending: “I want to be healthy so I can work. I work for the sake of money. And the money is for the sake of food, drink, housing, recreation, and exercise—all of which make it possible for me to work.” It’s an endless cycle that lacks ultimate meaning.

Last night, I read a National Geographic issue from November 2017 about the happiest countries in the world. One of the individuals profiled in the article is Alejandro Zuniga, a produce vendor in Costa Rica. Zuniga doesn’t have a lot of money and doesn’t work all that much. He has no car and no expensive electronics. But he socializes at least six hours a day, walks to work, and labors no more than 40 hours a week. He loves his job and his co-workers. He volunteers every week, and he worships God on the weekends.

How many people would say that Zuniga has achieved the American dream (or Costa Rican equivalent), which is often talked about in terms of economic success and social status? Probably not many. And yet he is profoundly happy.

Here in America, the primacy of money-making and productivity lives so deep in our social consciousness that it goes almost unquestioned. Yet the pursuit of the economic American dream requires a great deal of busyness to achieve—more and more, in fact, with rising inflation and cost of living. As a society, we tend to see the purpose of life in the accumulation of money and status, rather than making space for contemplative and celebratory leisure. But without valuing leisure and the simpler life—a life more like Zuniga’s—we aren’t preparing a foundation for true culture, and along with it, happiness.

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