Many people overdo their work life and many people mishandle their leisure time and many are probably the same people. Labor Day is a good time to consider what we’re celebrating and how.

The best writings I know of on these subjects are from Pope John Paul II and scholar Josef Pieper.

Laborem Exercens, On Human Work, is one of JPII’s fine writings on the meaning and dignity of labor.

Through work man must earn his daily bread and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family. And work means any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances; it means any human activity that can and must be recognized as work, in the midst of all the many activities of which man is capable and to which he is predisposed by his very nature, by virtue of humanity itself.

That’s the first paragraph of a must-read and inspiring work of the pope who understood labor, labor movements, politics and human rights well. Considering how central those issues are in the US elections and news cycles right now, I’m re-reading it and recommending it to others. The origins of Labor Day as a holiday derive from this thinking and teaching.

How we spend it is another matter, given all the mattress sale ads I’ve seen and the traditional end of summer ‘last blast’ parties and all. Considering work and a break from it, I always benefit from reading or even looking over my highlighting of Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture.

Leisure, then, as a condition of the soul – (and we must firmly keep to this assumption, since leisure is not necessarily present in all the external things like “breaks,” “time off,” “weekend,” “vacation,” and so on – it is a condition of the soul) – leisure is precisely the counterpoise to the image of the “worker,”…

Against the exclusiveness of the paradigm of work as activity, first of all, there is leisure as “non-activity” – an inner absence of preoccupation, a calm, an ability to let things to, to be quiet.

Which many or maybe most of us not only lack, but don’t even know how to do that or get there.

Leisure is only possible in the assumption that man is not only in harmony with himself…but also that he is in agreement with the world and its meaning. Leisure lives on affirmation. It is not the same as the absence of activity.

A lot of us just don’t have this concept down. Pieper says the “break” is there for the sake of work, to provide new strength for new work.  But leisure is not, “no matter how much new strength the one who resumes working may gain from it.”


…so leisure is of a higher rank than the active life.

He says here, and this is keenly perceptive and interesting, that leisure doesn’t just make the worker “trouble-free” with some “downtime,” but rather keeps the worker human.

…and this means that the human being does not disappear into the parceled-out world of his limited work-a-day world as a whole, and thereby to realize himself as a being who is oriented toward the whole of existence.

This is why the ability to be “at leisure” is one of the basic powers of the human soul. Like the gift of contemplative self-immersion in Being, and the ability to uplift one’s spirits in festivity, the power to be at leisure is the power to step beyond the working world and win contact with those superhuman, life-giving forces that can send us, renewed and alive again, into the busy world of work.

Happy Labor Day, folks. May all who seek work find it, do it well, and enjoy the fruits of labor and leisure in balance every day. I’m working on that myself.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....