On the uses of leisure

This is the time of year when it becomes necessary to tell certain people, ''It's your turn to take a vacation. Now go. No whimpering. Not another word.''

To say that certain people do not really want to take a vacation is an understatement. It's like prying fingers from the side of a lifeboat to tear them from the job. The despairing look that comes into their eyes when they shuffle out of the office for a Month of Fun could break your heart.

Most people have been decently brought up to pretend they like vacations. In fact, it's part of the native tradition to assume that an unending vacation is what everybody dreams of - the ultimate freedom.

A well-trained vacationer can fake ecstasy for up to a month, collecting seashells, sending gloating postcards back to the office, and snapping dozens of those pictures that seem meant to illustrate every possible variety of smile.

As these obedient frolickers, playing out the approved ritual, drag themselves back to the first day on the job, their groans and grimaces could win an Oscar. Their colleagues cooperate, keening sympathetically like the supernumeraries in a Greek chorus, knowing their turn to star will come.

Only these certain people we speak of cannot enter into the game, even when it's somebody else's vacation. Pretending that vacation is fun and work is not - this simply exceeds their powers of hypocrisy. The ranks of these certain people appear to be growing every year, as if the world were polarizing into workaholics and playboys.

On the subject of vacation, which extremist is to be more trusted, the ant or the grasshopper? The edge in sincerity may incline, just a little, toward the ant. Even Baudelaire, one of the most compulsive playboys of the Western world, conceded: ''Work is less boring than pleasure.''

So long as vacation is treated as an exercise in hedonism - back-to-back Saturday nights -- the enterprise huffs and puffs from strain. But on the other hand, what solution is it to work all the time? Nor will it do to cheat by being businesslike about vacation - operating by schedules, assigning oneself pleasure quotas, overachieving at play.

Aristotle says that the purpose of work is leisure, and that makes sense. But what is the purpose of leisure? This is the vacationer's question that both ants and grasshoppers stumble over.

Any plausible answer must get away from equating leisure to idleness, as both ants and grasshoppers tend to do. Leisure may not factor out into simple statistics of productivity, as work-time does. Yet without leisure, without this extra space within tick-tock time, no fully human act -- art, original thinking, prayer -- can be performed.

Leisure is that mysterious element, acknowledged but unnamed in the statement: Ripeness is all.

Leisure may not be eternity, but it's getting there. Without the leisure just to be for one month a year, all the bits and pieces of daily doing provide no wholeness. Nothing quite adds up - especially us.

The German philosopher Josef Pieper speaks of leisure as the ''celebration that should draw the man in us, who is 'born to work,' out of himself, and should draw him out of the toil and moil of every day into the sphere of unending holiday, and should draw him out of the narrow and confined sphere of work and labor into the heart and center of creation.''

That's what we call a proper vacation.

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