Saturday, January 03, 2009

Otium Sanctam

I was thinking yesterday that holidays, health crises, poverty and homeschooling (particularly unschooling, I was thinking) all have something in common. They all show in some ways how few things that we THINK are needful, truly are.

This occurred to me yesterday when I was regretting that the holidays have to end and my husband said, "Why DO they?" He was not seriously proposing that we keep up our holiday schedule forever, but it did raise an interesting question.

Then later on I thought that it was the same thing, a bit, with health issues. There was, of course, a time in this family when the baby was in the hospital for several months and gravely ill. A couple of years before that, there was a time when I was on bedrest for a couple of months while pregnant, and then after the baby's birth, very shaky in health for a couple of months after.

Somehow life went on in all its important aspects, during these times. The kids even got educated. This is what brought homeschooling to my mind as another comparative, and particularly unschooling. Before starting homeschooling, you often get feedback along the lines of "how can a mom give a child the education to prepare him for life in the world, an education equivalent to the expensive, expert one he can get at school?" And if you try to do some sort of unschooling, you sometimes get the same type of response: "Don't you HAVE to assign this or that so that the child will actually learn it?" In the particulars, that is almost always not universally true. Let me try to say that more clearly -- for any particular: "Your child will not learn Shakespeare -- or math -- or religious doctrine -- or self-discipline if you unschool" -- you can find counter-examples, often in your own home. And if you homeschool long enough, you usually find that some of the "have-to's" weren't really necessary after all. You don't HAVE to have a government-funded student lab, a high school math teacher, etc. Such things are nice sometimes, but not needful.

You can see the connection with poverty. I wish I could find the blog post I just recently read -- or maybe it was somewhere else online. Anyway, it was about something I've noticed too, that lacking things often encourages creativity and resourcefulness. I found this out by experience when we dropped down in income level, and before that, when we moved to a small San Francisco apartment to be closer to our baby who was in the hospital. We didn't have most of our "stuff" but somehow we didn't lack; we made do.

At the hospital pediatric floor you see this very strongly. You meet people who live in trailer parks and you meet Muslim millionaires (seriously, you do, in UCSF because a lot of Middle Easterners come there when the child's health complication is out of the local reach). You meet authors and typical soccer moms. They are living there without a lot of things you would ordinarily consider quite important, like a real bed ;-).

I am talking about "ordinary" privations of wealth and health, of course, the kinds I've experienced here in comfortable America, not the horrible ones in war and famine-torn countries. I can't really speak for those situations, since I've never come close; however, the principle probably does apply in some ways.

And finally, there is the contemplative religious life, which shares something of poverty and something of "leisure" -- the essence of a holiday, which means "holy day". Leisure isn't the same as recreation, remember; it's something different. Leisure means doing something which is valuable for itself, which can be "enjoyed" in itself and not in pursuit of something else. ... it relates to "holy" which etymologically means "set apart"; the Church Fathers spoke of "otium sanctam", "holy leisure". That is what I think we hate to see slip away when the vacation is over. We actually kept quite busy during this holiday, in a sense, but it wasn't a "getting things done" type of busy-ness; it was more about doing things that had rewards in themselves. I won't say it was "holy" in the deeper spiritual sense because it would be hard to say that we were being holy sitting in front of the fire with our feet up talking about some interesting philosophical question, or whatever -- but it was a "set apart" time, and partook of leisure, and it was certainly affirmative of holiness in the more specific spiritual sense.

I'm talking about the ways a life can be pared way back from the "have to's" and still retain all that is really important. But I'm not saying that the extras are bad because I don't think so at all; I think they are usually very good in themselves. I'm not saying, either, at least not here, that a life of either perpetual holiday or poverty would be a perfect life (though I do think no life can be perfect without an underpinning of poverty and "otium sanctam"). I am just saying that like Martha in the Bible, whom I often think of, we can get bewitched and attracted to "the many things" that seem so important to do. They're often not even FUN things, as her story shows. We can start coveting "Have To's" in a way I've felt, and which isn't often expressed, as a sort of validation or permission to be troubled and anxious. "I have to get my child exposed to this or that so he will be better educated.... I have to buy this curriculum or take him to that activitiy." This permission to oneself to be "troubled and anxious" is an odd thing, but it is quite common, judging from my own experience. The corollary of this can be that we feel deprived and futile if we are not bustling around importantly.

Yesterday I was reading a Winnie the Pooh story to Paddy and Pooh and Piglet go to visit Rabbit. When Rabbit asks why they have come, they tell Rabbit it was to wish him a "Happy Thursday" and he says, "Oh, is that all. I thought it was something Important."

Later Pooh says that Rabbit has a Big Brain and is very Intelligent, and that is why he doesn't seem to understand anything.

The bigger point is that it's easy to get caught up in the complications of things -- I do it a lot with homeschooling -- and forget that the essence of the thing is probably quite simple. The medievals saw this excessive focus on activity and supposed "Important Things" as a form of sloth or accedie, as a way of limiting real understanding.


Stephanie said...

Yes. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Seasons are best in rhythms. This is what I think is going on when we (you and I, specifically, I mean) are ready for the fasting to begin. Too much breathing in. We're hyperventilating somehow and looking for balance.

Anyway, I think you're onto something. Essentials are few, and health crises, poverty, and homeschooling are all very very good indeed at showing us exactly what those few essentials are. I've certainly learned through all three of those teachers!

Stephanie said...

(And that first "comment" is the kind of spam that made me turn on the word verification feature at my blog. I used to get those all the time.)

Willa said...

I used to get them a lot on my wordpress blog until they set up better filters -- not so much here for some reason. I'm not sure why, or if it's going to change now!

Willa said...

Hey, the deleted comment didn't leave a track like it used to. Maybe Blogger changed that because spammers could have their post deleted and still have a URL in their names. Anyway, for the record now that it's disappeared, it was a spam comment on the order of "great article, check my website".

recreational scholar said...

This is just what I needed to hear today. I've loved the atmosphere here in our home around the holidays. I was thinking all morning about how we'll have to get back to "work" on Monday. Now I'm re-thinking just what that means.