Segal: Time out
One of the stains on my otherwise spotless grade school record is a citation for failing to turn in my spelling homework one day in third grade. I pleaded with my teacher, “But my mom threw it away!” I know it sounds like a weak excuse, but it was true. I had left the completed worksheet on the stairs the night before so that I would remember it in the morning. My mother, in her perpetual zeal to curtail clutter, tossed it in the trash.
My teacher did not believe me, or did not care. Homework was ultimately my responsibility and no one else’s. I would have to bear the consequences: no recess for me that day. Recess is everything to a third grader! Aside from lunch, it’s the only oasis of unstructured play time in a desert of obligation that stretches in all directions as far as the eye can see. Not to mention that I had to suffer through missing out on all the fun my friends were having without me. It was the late 1980s, so I didn’t have the internet-age vocabulary for it, but I was experiencing acute FOMO.
It’s possible I never fully forgave my mother for her well-intentioned act of homework sabotage. To be fair, as a parent myself now, I can understand her anti-clutter militance. Especially after the holidays, our living space is awash in stuff-we-don’t-need and things-that-got-played-with-once. That we adopted a Holiday Baskets family and provided Christmas gifts for someone truly in need quiets my conscience only somewhat.
I had good reason to protest missing recess. According to recent studies, recess is vital to child development. As Alia Wong writes in the December 2016 Atlantic Monthly, “Perhaps most important, recess allows children to design their own games, to test their abilities, to role-play and to mediate their own conflicts — activities that are key to developing social skills and navigating complicated situations. Preliminary results from an ongoing study in Texas suggest that elementary-school children who are given four 15-minute recesses a day are significantly more empathetic toward their peers than are kids who don’t get recess.” It’s a good thing I didn’t make a habit of sitting out recess. Without that crucible of socialization, I could have slipped into juvenile delinquency and eventually to a life of crime, or a career in politics.
People need time to learn how to relate to each other. The Greeks had a word for this: “schole.” We might translate it as “leisure,” but it refers to “the time away from business when citizens could develop their faculties through the art and contemplation that were indispensable for full participation in public affairs.” That’s what Jeffrey Rosen writes in his new biography of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, titled “American Prophet.”
Brandeis championed the Jeffersonian idea that democracy depends on an engaged and educated populace. That doesn’t happen by itself; we need the will — and the “leisure” time — to achieve it. Brandeis wrote about this ideal in a 1915 speech: “And to the preservation of freshness of mind a short workday is as essential as adequate food and proper conditions of working and of living. The worker must, in other words, have leisure. But leisure does not imply idleness. It means ability to work not less but more, ability to work at something besides breadwinning, ability to work harder while working at breadwinning, and ability to work more years at breadwinning. Leisure, so defined, is an essential of successful democracy.” Leisure is when we do the homework of citizenship.
Of course, hard work is virtuous. But working too hard, or too much, makes us poorer citizens. For some, mere survival demands working long hours and several jobs to make ends meet. For others, the inability to feel that one has “enough” drives the insatiable pursuit of wealth. Both extremes lead to social and political dysfunction, and the solution will involve both economic and cultural change.
Fortunately, we are heirs to an ancient wisdom tradition that still speaks to us today, if we listen. The Fourth Commandment of the Bible’s Ten Commandments teaches that rest is sacred. It prescribes a day off so that your children, your animals, your servants and the strangers dwelling with you may also rest (see Deuteronomy 5:14-15). It reminds us that each individual’s economic agency exists within a system and that we are responsible for the wellbeing of those around us. It also links the Sabbath day to the exodus from servitude in Egypt. A lack of leisure is the mark of slaves, not free people. Servitude can be imposed by external forces or self-imposed by those who have forgotten the vital sanctity of rest.
We need limits around work because we are more than just breadwinners. We are parents, volunteers, neighbors, mentors and leaders. In a word, we are citizens. As hard as we work in the office, we owe it to our community to work as hard in the civic arena.
I can’t say that all these lessons were in my mind on that day I missed recess in third grade. But I did learn something about responsibility and the value of time off. How we spend our time is a reflection of what we value. Taking time out should be high on our list — not just down time, but time to double down on the work of being better educated, more dedicated members of society.
Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at email@example.com or 970-925-8245. He blogs at http://www.rabbidavidsegal.com. His column runs the first Sunday of the month.
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