The “purpose of free time,” paradoxical as it sounds, is more than a merely intellectual concern. The misuse of leisure is a living reality, one of great importance to those who suffer from it…

What is the purpose of “free time”?

The question may seem foolish. If free time is “free,” isn’t it for whatever we want it to be for?

A few generations ago people might have said that, since no one can work perpetually, free time is for resting. But, today, in a hundred ways, from the phrase “Thank God it’s Friday” to the live-for-the-weekend aesthetic of car and beer commercials, our culture proclaims the opposite: that work is endured for the sake of reaching leisure… which is not, in itself, an indictment of our culture. Aristotle said much the same thing.

However, we consider leisure, the goal of work, merely the realm of individual freedom: It’s for whatever we happen to want, for satisfying our individual desires. And we have a flood of goods and services designed to satisfy our fleeting wants. But who would pretend that we are satisfied?

How many people—especially the young—get trapped in dead-end, compulsive behaviors in the name of leisure? It would be overkill to list the kinds: constant, objectless checking of social media feeds; addiction to TV or video games; dating simply for the satisfaction it brings; shopping sprees; the treadmill of the “latest hit”; the search for intense pleasure in clubs; even the abuse of alcohol or the use of drugs or pornography.

So the “purpose of free time,” paradoxical as it sounds, is more than a merely intellectual concern. The misuse of leisure is a living reality, one of great importance to those who suffer from it.

For that reason, we present our discussion as a dialogue, among “Matt” (a twenty-two-year-old college student), Seneca, and John Paul II. Seneca and John Paul stand as representatives of the many great minds—Josef Pieper, Erasmus, Aquinas, Augustine, Aristotle, Plato, etc.—who have discussed leisure. They may seem to be two unlikely interlocutors for a college student; but each person is met by different bearers of the tradition, and young people, as we can attest from our experience, are willing to follow their concerns anywhere they see the hope of an answer.

… … …

Matt: Sometimes I’m almost disgusted with myself. Week after week, I keep falling into that same… rut. Just a few days ago I did it again. No matter how awful it was last week, on Friday I’m there, in the same place, doing the same thing, with the same people.

Seneca: That is the way, unhappily, for many of us. We swing between desire and remorse—tossing on the waves, as it were, clutching at one thing after another. We consider best that which is praised by most people; or, at least, we find ourselves following the current of the many, diverted from our own judgment before it has had time to grow from feebleness to strength. How often we find ourselves following the road with the most footprints upon it! This we do, indeed, whether there are any footprints of those who have returned.

John Paul II: Something in this tragedy speaks of our true nature. Are we not made for life with others? Look inside yourself. Even there, do you find that you are alone? I know that I have found myself—in my affections, memories, hopes, and desires: in my very being—to be “with others.” And “for others.” For this reason, our friendships exert quite a pull on us. But we must be on our guard, lest their pull misdirect our energetic and powerful search for happiness and meaning.

Matt: That’s just it. I do look for happiness and meaning. I can’t help thinking about the meaning of life, the origin of the world—all that kind of thing. Yet, I keep going back. This stuff—thinking about it, I mean—doesn’t seem to make any difference. I just want to be happy and not have to bother anymore!

Seneca: This search is natural to man! Do you think to abdicate your nature? No, living according to nature is our highest good. And you cannot doubt that this search, at least, is in your nature and that of all men, for do you not have a passion for discovering the unknown? Do not we all? What else draws men to long voyages and all the toils of journeying, to public shows, to prying into everything closed, to searching out what is hidden, to listening to adventurous tales and the customs of distant nations? Nature has given us an inquiring disposition. Our thought bursts through the battlements of heaven, and is not satisfied with knowing only what is shown to us. All men seek. Should we not seek, then, the highest things? And since we have so short a time, should we not seek without tiring?

John Paul II: In a way, too, this search is the most fundamental characteristic of youth. This time of your life—this time of a searching hunger—was given to you by Providence: as both a gift and a responsibility. Am I right that you want to find not only the meaning of life but also a concrete way to go about living life, your own life: a way which lives up to the highest truths—and which is truly yours? Who, then, will you become if you cease your seeking?

Matt: No, no, you’re right. I was speaking out of frustration, mostly. But, still—the frustration matters. Maybe I need a different way to seek.

Seneca: Even if we attempt nothing else, solitude itself will be beneficial. It will give us space for reflection, for contemplation, and it will allow us to carry out what we have decided to be best, since there will be no one to interfere with us or pervert our judgment. Only the life that includes solitude—solitude not of worry or of dissipation in trivialities but of calm thought and recollection—can flow on as a life should, in a single gentle stream.

John Paul II: “Contemplation!”—this is a good word. Especially, we should contemplate the world around us. Contact with the visible world—with nature—is of immense importance. Our relationship to the visible world enriches us in a different way than what we get from books: It enriches us directly. Being in contact with nature, we absorb into our own life the very mystery of creation. This mystery reveals itself to us through the untold wealth and variety of visible beings, and beckons us, at the same time, always, towards what is hidden and invisible. Make time for this! Do not miss it! Accept, too, the fatigue and effort of journeying in nature—of hiking, climbing, rowing. Do not be afraid to set yourself challenging goals. In fact, such fatigue is creative. It not only unites us with creation, but it also forms respect in us for the nature of our bodies, and brings the joy of self-mastery.

Seneca: It is true: Nature wishes to be gazed upon. We have been given our inquiring disposition that we may be witnesses of her vast and noble works, her great skill and beauty. And I am not speaking in images. What other creature can gaze upon the world in wonder, in searching, disinterested admiration? Nothing in nature is without its purpose, even this. Truly indeed, he who meditates upon these things renders a service to God: preventing these his works going unseen.

Matt: I’ve known what you mean. When I’m in the middle of a field, or on top of a mountain, or sitting watching the waves, my ideas are . . . in order. I’m at peace. And, you know, I’ve usually found myself reflecting on things. The big things, not just in the world, but in my own life, too. Calmly—and deeply.

And this gives me some direction—about what I can do with my time. Not everything is as bad as what I was talking about earlier: Some stuff that fills up my free time is pretty harmless, I guess, or a good way to let off steam. But still, I want more than just . . . relaxing. Sometimes that’s what you need, right? But there has to be more out there.

So, tell me, if everything in nature has a purpose, what about friendships? Surely they’re more than just distractions.

John Paul II: Indeed they are! As I said before, it is part of our very being to be “with others” and even “for others.” And youth, especially, is the time for new contacts: new companionships and friendships. Find ways to deepen your relationships, not just by spending time together but by delving together into the truth. Study, discussion, reading, questioning: meet each other as persons. Each person has an infinite horizon. As the tradition tells us, we are capax totius—capable of the whole. And even capax Dei—capable of God!

Each of us, too, is unrepeatable, unique. So I invite you to make, as it were, a study of persons: not with clinical distance, but with the warmth of the human heart seeking the true good of the other, looking to learn, among all our differences (and even distortions), the shape of humanity. Your youthful experience—all your contacts and relationships—should develop in you the ability to make critical judgments and, above all, the capacity for discernment in all things human.

And do not forget “self-giving”! Find ways to serve your friends, not remaining on the outskirts of their lives; and find ways to pour yourself even into those whom you do not know. It is only in these ways that we become fully human.

Seneca: I would state, further, that nothing we do is ever truly apart from others. Just as he who makes himself to be a worse man harms, in so doing, all those to whom he might have done good, so he who improves himself does good to others. If the pursuits of our solitude increase our virtue or our wisdom, then we serve all men even when at leisure. Indeed, such leisure may be a better service than outward works would be, for it makes us not only of greater use to the living but also of use to posterity.

Matt: Was the desire to help other people why you both wrote plays? (You know, your plays are how I got interested in you. One of my teachers mentioned you offhandedly in a Theatre History class. Not a lot of playwrights were philosophers—it sticks out.) What, would you say, is the place of art and that sort of thing?

John Paul II: The works of humanity are, in a way, an extension of our personal dialogues across time and space. How much goodness and beauty there is in the works of humanity! Through contact with different cultures, with the many arts and sciences, we learn the truth about man—above all, when these things are deeply rooted in experience, we learn his openness to the universal and the transcendent. The works of human culture are a true source of growth; their truth can build up and enrich the humanity of each person.

Seneca: Let us not think, however, that all men’s works are true or good. Just as the behavior and example of men can corrupt us, so also may the example of their works. Let us have care, especially, of public spectacles where wickedness is made persuasive through the eloquence of pleasure. There can be no happiness without prudence in all things and without constancy in judgment.

Matt: That takes us back to where we started, doesn’t it? To me, culture sometimes seems like a kind of peer pressure. A strange kind of anonymous peer pressure, sure. Nobody wants it, nobody causes it exactly, but it’s there, pushing us to do things we don’t enjoy.

Have you ever heard the song “American Pie”? It seems to say what I mean. “A generation lost in space.” We’ve all lost something—something natural, a kind of innocence, even in music and things like that. One day “the music died.” Now we’re pushed around by forces we can’t control.

And the song seems to have proved itself right, kind of ironically—it’s even been recorded by Madonna!

John Paul II: You are quite right. Among the structures of culture, some are best called “structures of sin.” These impede the full realization of those who are affected by them: By their influence, they work against a true awareness of the common good and hinder us from living in accord with the truth. (To be sure, these structures are brought into being—and strengthened—by personal decisions against what is good. They are never wholly outside our freedom and responsibility.) To speak bluntly, many structures in our world today are formed by an all-consuming desire for profit or a thirst for power; and our ways of entertainment are not excepted. Some things that claim to be entertainment are, much more, a web of false and superficial gratifications, which keep us from experiencing our personhood deeply. We have developed an idea of leisure as selfish distraction! Even technologies—and are there not continually more communication and entertainment technologies?—despite that they are, in general, signs of man’s greatness, must, in particular, be questioned. Do they make human life “more human” in every aspect, not merely in some fragmented ways? Do they help us to be more spiritually mature, more aware of our dignity, more responsible, more open to others? Or do they hinder and confuse us?

These structures can, it is true, be difficult to overcome. To cast them off and make alternative, more authentic, forms of living in community demands courage and patience. But do not be afraid! As the Apostle said, “I write to you, young people, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you” (1 Jn. 2:14). A first step is finding ways to support each other, developing authentic forms within your own circle.

Matt: That’s certainly a lot to chew on.

Seneca: Perhaps a summary of our conversation would be of use?

Matt: Sure.

Seneca: In the first place, we have said, solitude is necessary, that we may deepen our search for meaning and become secure in its results. Solitude of this sort can be only if it is cultivated. Along with this, and in the second place, is engagement with the visible world of nature: We must contemplate the natural world through the involvement of both our minds and bodies. In the third place, we should strive, in our friendships and other associations, to know each other and serve each other in the fullness of truth. Along with this, and in the fourth place, we should open ourselves to the riches found in the works of human culture. In this regard, however, it is necessary to exercise judgment, both of particular works as well as of what have been called “structures”—our ways of common life, patterns of thought, and inventions—that we, together with others, may come to good and not to harm.

John Paul II: We have forgotten one thing—the fifth, and most important. Contact with God! Certainly, we meet God in nature and in other people; but we must seek Him directly. Pray and learn to pray! Open your hearts and your consciences to the one who knows you better than yourself. Only in relation to Him can our lives take shape. And if you wish to fill your time, why not fill it with the One who fills all things? He—He alone—brings fullness of life.

Solitude is not the last word, nor, truly, even the first. He is, as St. Augustine said “interior intimo meo”: intimate to our most intimate being.

Talk to Him!

… … …

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Authors’ Note: John Paul II’s thoughts and statements are drawn largely from Dilecti Amici, supplemented by Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Fides et Ratio, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Centesimus Annus, Redemptor Hominis (in the Vatican translations), and his General Audience of 24 July, 1985. Seneca’s thoughts and statements are drawn from De Otio, supplemented by De Vita Beata.

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