Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The N.C.A.A. has taken an image-beating in recent years. Angry critics of its alleged exploitation of student athletes have been relentless in their attacks on both the institution and its leadership. Chief among those who bear the liberally dealt blows is Dr. Mark Emmert, president of the N.C.A.A. In a recent article devoted primarily to the psychological toll that the job and its pressures have taken on him, the Times sought to expose something of his complicated character and work. Emmert, a heavily-compensated, highly capable, would-be reformer, seems simply to be the most prominent face of a incredibly complicated, clumsily democratic, and highly bureaucratic business that exceeds the capacities of any one man. To cope with the stresses of this life, Emmert compensates in charming fashion: “To help keep calm, Dr. Emmert meditates and visits his home on Whidbey Island in Washington. He has been taking a butchery class.”

At first the list of diversions seems odd, and then, upon second thought, curiously connatural. To mitigate the anger associated with the ponderous pressure of his work and the myriad personal attacks he sustains as a result, Emmert does normal things. He meditates. He goes home. He learns skills to enrich his life. While it might be interesting to run a hunter-gatherer/nostalgia angle on the butchery piece, perhaps it’s best to just leave that alone and marvel at the fact that it is necessary to do normal human things as a way to offset the artificiality of work.

More specifically, Emmert finds it necessary to enjoy leisure. The revelation is no surprise. We all experience this necessity or at least recognize it. We have a pejorative name for workaholics for good reason. While we all admire efficiency, the man who finds work more fun than fun is deranged. This is a pathology, not maximal efficiency. We recognize the good of relaxation, restoration, and health to be had in leisure. But why is this so? For Emmert, the pursuit perfects his work. Leisure provides the necessary therapy so as to avoid future blow-ups of a University of Miami stripe. Gaffes in the past have brought to his attention weaknesses that butchery is somehow able to repair. Being a good butcher makes him a better president.

This mentality of leisure for work is pervasive. It informs ethics committees and HR departments the world over. Companies find it within their best interests to ensure the health, happiness, and “holiness” of employees based on empirical findings of increased efficiency. Recently, the city of Gothenburg, Sweden (headquarters of Volvo) moved to implementing a six-hour workday with hopes to substitute focused work for fewer hours in place of a more diffuse and distracted work-week, hopefully paving the way for better margins.

And yet, the model of leisure for work is insufficient. There is an implicit misunderstanding at play that thinking of this type betrays. To correct it, we might simply point out this: Leisure is not for work. Rather, work is for leisure. Leisure—the meditation, home-visiting, and butchery of our lives—touches on the most essential and indispensable parts of human existence. These contemplative acts engage our distinctly human capacities in a way that some work simply cannot. Contemplation (what Josef Pieper, in his essay Leisure: The Basis of Culture, classed as the highest form of leisure) engages the mind with something higher and decidedly not-utile, thus introducing the human spirit into a realm incommensurable with work and somehow creative and recreative of intellectual attainment and realization. This is not to say that work is inimical to leisure. It is rather to suggest that when leisure is subordinated to further efficiency, it loses its contemplative character and, in time, ceases to offer the very benefits for which employers cultivate it. Work encompasses only part of man’s life—a lower part—and until the shape of human family and leisure reflect that fact, outcomes, assessments, and press conferences will continue to disappoint. As Emmert himself seems to have discovered (“I can’t smile too much,” he said. “No one will believe it.”), an efficiency driven approach, absent the direction of a further purpose, saps the very life from work itself and forbids even the prolonged smile.

More on: Leisure, Culture

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles