Review of Ryan Holiday, Stillness is the Key. Penguin Publishing Group, 2019, 288 pages.
As college students, our lives move at a frantic pace. We have emails to answer, essays to write, and applications to submit. When we finish one task, we check a box and jump to the next, barely giving ourselves time to breathe. The old adage that “time is money” seems to ring in our ears constantly. We view time as blocks on a planner, vacant containers to be stuffed with as much productivity as possible.
Yet there are moments when we detach from the frenzy, allowing ourselves to relax and recharge. These reprieves appear on our calendars as “Thanksgiving Break,” “Winter Break,” “Spring Beak.” On these “off days” we mute our email notifications, silence our phones, and try to set our planners aside. We finally make time to read, to reunite with an instrument that has been collecting dust, to travel and appreciate nature, to journal and revive old hobbies. Sadly, this time for leisure ends as quickly as it starts. After catching our breath for a few moments, the frantic pace is restored, only to be slowed down when the calendar allows.
This is a snapshot of many of our lives. Leaving the leisure of Christmas behind, we are beginning to speed up again. Though some view this as unproblematic, I see a crisis of leisure. Leisure hasn’t completely disappeared from our culture, but it is threatened largely because we do not properly understand and practice it. We view it as a rare luxury that we allow only at certain times. But by depriving ourselves of leisure, we starve our minds and bodies of nourishment, stunting our intellectual and spiritual development. A better approach would be to weave leisure into the fabric of our lives so that we become daily practitioners of it rather than seasonal ones.
What is Leisure?
In his 2019 book Stillness is the Key, Ryan Holiday provides a lucid definition of leisure. He traces its origin to the Greek word scholē, which is the source of our word for “school.”
Leisure historically meant simply freedom from the work needed to survive, freedom for intellectual or creative pursuits. It was learning and study and the pursuit of higher things.
Instead of serving as means to specific ends, leisure focuses on what is intrinsically good, activities that are ends-in-themselves. True leisure is free of external justifications (for example, the pursuit of wealth or social recognition). We feel whole and fulfilled simply in doing the act, not by the results of it.
Many great thinkers have acknowledged the importance of leisure and practiced it routinely: Saint Teresa was a dance enthusiast. Socrates loved to play with children. Herbert Hoover treasured fishing. Einstein was drawn to his violin, and Pythagoras to his lyre.
Leisure can take an endless variety of forms. It is not so much about what we choose to do but how we do it. Holiday, citing Josef Pieper, emphasizes that leisure is more than simply a relaxing activity, it is a “basic power of the human soul.” It is an outpouring of creative energy. It is an invitation to attune to our inner selves, to contemplate our environment, and to ponder the mysteries of the human condition. Leisure is a building block of human flourishing. It transcends the trivial happenings of life and directs our attention to higher things: Truth, Beauty, and the Good.
What Leisure is Not
Holiday clears up several misconceptions about leisure. First, leisure is not idleness. Though leisure and idleness both de-pressurize the mind in some way, leisure is active while idleness is inactive. During leisure, the mind is engaged and focused as neurons fire, connect, and rearrange. By contrast, an idle mind is lethargic, as, for instance, when we sit in front of a TV for long stretches: Our minds slowly atrophy (even though we are receiving visual stimulation). Idleness seems to suspend the mind between wakefulness and sleep. Leisure, on the other hand, forces us to be conscious, meticulous, and deliberate. Holiday uses the leisurely habits of Eastern philosophers as an illustration. Many of them chose martial arts for leisure. To meet the physical demands of their craft, they had to be alert, aware, and attentive. Though leisure often requires mental energy, Holiday argues that leisure always provides us with a return on our investments: it restores and refreshes us.
Second, the purpose of leisure is not to maximize productivity, even though this may be a byproduct. Many people view leisure as a temporary pause that will allow us to attack our work with a new ferocity. But that is not its primary purpose. Citing Pieper once more, Holiday explains that “leisure is like saying a prayer before bed. It might help you go to sleep – just as leisure might help you get better at your job – but that can’t be the point” (Holiday, 238).
Leisure is also not a compulsion. It is freely chosen. If we view leisure as something we must do to enhance our efficiency, we will cut ourselves off from its enriching benefits. The moment we strictly regiment it and begin forcing ourselves into “leisure time,” it is no longer leisure, but just another “task.”
Finally, leisure is not a form of escapism. Holiday gives the example of John Fante, a writer who used leisurely activities (golfing, reading, and traveling) to cope with the failure of his novel Ask the Dust. Such escapist behaviors left him estranged from his wife and wallowing in despair. He was using leisure to run away from his life and repress his feelings of dejection. But leisure is not an anesthetic. It is a sacred time when we should embrace ourselves fully. It is a time when we should allow our weaknesses, strengths, experiences and inclinations to congeal into a creative act: a painting, a poem, a drawing, a piece of music, or a prayer. Depending on the activity that is chosen, leisure provides an opportunity for confronting and defusing problems, not avoiding them.
Leisure is a practice that many of us are destined to neglect this semester. But we should make an active effort to remember the value of leisure and integrate it into our daily routine as best we can: creating a book club with friends, taking up a new sport or instrument, building a new friendship. Our souls will thank us and our lives will brighten.
Elan is a senior from Austin, TX. He is studying political science and rhetoric. He is a Nietzsche enthusiast and is currently in the process of writing an honors thesis about him entitled: "Nietzsche: The Anti-political Thinker." In his spare time, he enjoys reading (Albert Camus is his favorite author), indulging in creative writing, and playing the piano.