“It is also not surprising that the same viruses that infect the culture of narcissism infect the culture of total work,” writes Anthony Esolen in Woman of Leisure, combining insights from Christopher Lasch and Josef Pieper.
. . . .And yet it is taken for granted, even by Christians, that all young people, both men and women, must “do” something, by which they mean must find salaried (and preferably prestigious) employment. In my observation, it is not simply, or even principally, for money. It is considered necessary for the building of a “real” life with a real self. That suggests instead a real spiritual poverty, a restlessness, an inability to take delight in those often small and lovely things that should bring us joy.
I was thinking of this the other day, when reading some writer’s comments on small towns in the midwest, which he clearly thought places from which one could only escape, because nothing happens there. He (and I honestly can’t remember his name) was not the sort of writer who would talk about the soul, but he did describe these places as death to the human spirit, because they are, he thought, dull.
“But what is this life for, after all?” Esolen asks.
The poet John Keats, of dubious Christian faith, called it the “vale of soul-making,” and in that regard he was closer to the truth than we are. It is not the vale of body building, or of career crafting, or of job enhancement, but of soul making, and if we take the lessons of our faith seriously, that can only be by humility, opening ourselves up to the beauty and wonder of the world, and deigning to love those most beautiful and wondrous creatures, our fellow human beings. . . .
If we heed the wisdom of Pieper and Lasch, we will labor most fruitfully when we learn the blessedness of leisure, and we will become most ourselves, most magnanimous, when we learn again the littleness of the child.
I think the writer I mentioned meant the small towns he disliked didn’t have expensive coffee shops and newsstands with lots of magazines you’ll never read and theaters playing obscure movies and neighbors of different colors and unpronounceable names. And street fairs. And lectures that you always mean to go to. And dangerous neighborhoods that provide stories to scare your suburban friends.
But without romanticizing the countryside — I, for one, have no desire to live in the rural midwest — its people have many of those small and lovely things that should bring us joy, at least as many as the man in the city. They have friendship and fellowship, family and community. They may value them more because they don’t have all the distractions, all the pleasures that are less satisfying but more appealing than those.
A church potluck supper with the farmer and the pastor eating a range of bland casseroles can provide as many real pleasures as dinner at the hippest restaurant with the investment banker and the editor. But the reverse is also true, if you genuinely enjoy the food and the company. You can be a small child at the best restaurant in Manhattan as easily as in the grange hall in East Bent Fork, Iowa.
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Tony has written two “On the Square” articles for us, The Soldier’s Rough Charity and Desires Run Not Before Honor, and one article for the magazine, The Freedom of Heaven and the Freedom of Hell (this one’s behind the paywall).