I have been thinking about how one lets go of work. Let me say first that I love my job. I believe that a strong work ethic is essential to a productive, meaningful life. But, unfortunately, we so often get ourselves tangled up, either working most of the time, or thinking about our work when we are not working. And this is not good. Our doctors tell us it is not good. Our philosophers tell us it is not good. Our Christian Scriptures tell us there is a better way, that we are meant for something more.
In 1947, the German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote a classic on this topic called Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Pieper dissects our modern notion that work should be all consuming, that even our “breaks” from work are structured in such a way to help us in our work. We rest so that we can go to work again, in better shape to do our work, rested in order to be more productive.
Pieper believes we need a deeper notion of leisure at the very foundations of our culture.
He proposes what he calls the “holy effortlessness” of genuine leisure. This is what is missing in our lives. This is what we so desperately need in order to restore a deep sense of belonging in our world. We must be reminded that we are not totally in control and don’t need to be. We must cultivate this discipline of “holy effortlessness.”
In thinking about all of this I was reminded of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “The Swan.” Rilke pictures for us what happens after the swan anxiously lets himself fall into the water, letting go, freeing himself from the “awkward walking of the swan.” It was as if the swan is “laboring through what is still undone,” and when he lets go, it is as if he knows that he is made for something profoundly different.
Just read this incredible poem, and then read it again, and think about what it can be like if we learn how to let go, how to free ourselves from always “laboring through what is still undone.” Think about the possibility that we are meant for something more.
The laboring through what is still undone,
as though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way,
is like the awkward walking of the swan.
And dying — to let go, no longer feel
the solid ground we stand on every day —
is like his anxious letting himself fall
into the water, which receives him gently
and which, as though with reverence and joy,
draws back past him in streams on either side;
while, infinitely silent and aware,
in his full majesty and ever more
indifferent, he condescends to glide.