For Its Own Sake: Reflections on Leisure

I have a tradition. Every semester, after the final day of paper deadlines, I permit myself to be a full-on professional athlete for a few days. I put training first on the agenda. I rest between sessions, and I do all of the little things—stretching, lifting, and core—that are usually crowded out by schoolwork. It is glorious! I love it for one to three days.

Then running starts to feel more compulsory and less like recess. I require more self-persuasion to get out the door. I find myself wanting to write and study as a reprieve from it. Fewer laps, more Quintilian, I think. More cardigans, fewer technical fabrics. My two activities (school and running) swap each other out. One becomes dedicated leisure and the other becomes work. One is compelled, and the other is my release. Every semester, this leads me to reflect anew on the nature of leisure and what place running holds in my life.

Where I land is this: Running is my leisure, except when it is not.

Conceptual Backdrop

The Greek word for leisure is ‘skole,’ which literally translates to ‘school,’ but this is a mostly unhelpful translation for us today (1). Skole means something like a lack of compulsion or freedom from productivity, but it is not idle either. Neighboring concepts are rest and play, and leisure consists of work done for its own sake. The concept is derived from the classical context of the liberal arts as truly ‘liberal’ (free) and ‘arts’ (making), wherein the goal of education is to ‘make you free.’ Education shapes you and humanizes you, and it consists of elements of both work and release. Leisure is often an avenue for either sustained intellectual reflection or some other active meaning-making in our lives, and it is central to the process of education.

Josef Pieper describes skole this way: “Leisure… is a mental and spiritual attitude—it is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a week-end or a vacation. It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul… [that implies] an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being ‘busy,’ but letting things happen (2).”

So leisure is a state—not necessarily an activity—which explains why my running and studying switch places as they do. Obligation can crowd out leisure, and somehow in my end-of-semester tradition, running, when it is substituted in as my primary employment, feels less free.

Running as Leisure

Sometimes I see magazine photographs of people laughing and jogging. Their clothes match. The sun shines. They are seemingly uncompelled, and their hair looks great. They move through the world with levity and liberty, and they look like the embodiment of leisure to me.

When I run, I do not often look like this. I am usually in a hurry because I need to fit my run in between other tasks, and I am more measured and serious. In some senses, my running is less free. I run every day—sometimes long, often hard, and with a great deal of focus. There is at least an ostensive degree of compulsion in a person who lives this way. In fact, if you have a goal in mind while you train, it can be difficult to run for its own sake in the way that leisure requires. So, while athletics is in the category of activities people often label as leisure, I am not sure that running always fits there.

But there are also ways in which running is the surest form of leisure I have. First, there is likely no activity I enjoy more for its own sake, even though this enjoyment often competes with goal-directed thinking. And, in terms of humanizing activities that free me up for reflection and thought, running serves this role more than most of my activities. When I am running, I can ‘stay’ in the way Pieper describes—by being not inactive but not busy either. The irony of running is that moving through space permits me to be present and ‘in one place’ better than any other activity I have. In these ways, running is my leisure.

Final Thoughts

Often when I write these articles, the meanings of the terms I use are clear to me, and I know—at least theoretically, if not practically—what I should be saying. For example, when I write about vices (like envy or acedia), it is clear we should eliminate them, and when I write about virtues (like patience and perseverance), I can confidently propose that these are qualities we should aim to develop. In the case of skole, the categories of work and leisure are so entwined in my running that I can’t make heads or tails of where I sit. Certain amounts of compulsion and strain sustain my training so I can compete well, but running is also a fruitful ground for self-reflection and strength of presence. Running provides both constraint and respite.

Every semester, after the final day of paper deadlines, I permit myself to be a full-on professional athlete for a few days. And every semester, this leads me to reflect anew on the nature of leisure and what place running holds in my life. I trust that making space for free, uncompelled action is just as important as the work I do, in enabling me to flourish as a human being. The question is just what role running plays in that process.

Where I land is this: Running is my leisure, except when it is not. 

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Is running your leisure? Is it for you a place where you can ‘let things happen’ in the mind and the body?
  • Does running occupy another space for you besides leisure, at least at times?

References

  1. Josef Pieper (1952). Leisure the Basis of Culture. New York: Pantheon Books. p. 2.
  2. p. 26-27.
Sabrina Little

is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.

There are 5 comments

  1. Luke

    Great message. The concept of leisure (and its importance) reminds me of a recent article describing the decline of solitude in the “connected” world and a corresponding increase in the prevalence of anxiety among young adults. Humans fundamentally need times of “inward calm” and “silence” in order to process the millions of thoughts that occupy our brains each day, and dedicating a run or a portion of a run to leisure is a great way to satisfy this need. While I subsequently take the most pride in hammering the tempo or interval portion of a big workout, I often most enjoy the long cooldown at the end of the run where I ditch any thoughts about pace, time, form, etc. and simply let my legs carry me home. Adding an intention to dedicate a run or at least a portion of a run to leisure would likely enhance the enjoyment we derive from the activity in the long run (couldn’t help myself…).

    1. Sabrina

      Luke, I love this comment. You’re right. There is a connection to the decline of solitude, and I wish I’d read that article. Also, your remark about the cool down is spot on. I never use my watch on the cool down, and it’s the best part of the run.

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