This is the reason you shall do it. For it brings you a pleasure which is unalloyed, an unmitigated good. I don’t know what it might be for you, this thing. I can think of a handful of things for me: writing, driving (not commuting), reading a good book, going for a walk with my wife, playing with my kids until the giggles and shrieks mingle, building or fixing something with my son, and so on.
By dint of our individual natures and life experiences we will each have some set of activities which tap into some simple and primal creaturely mirth. My exhortation is: do that. It’s good. Obviously some caveats are in order, such as, don’t sin, since sin by definition does not satisfy nor is it aligned with who we were made to be. But aside from that, there is broad freedom here.
For some, there are kinds of manual work which fall into this category. Probably not shoveling – though who knows? I’m thinking of something a little bit more skilled which passes the time and brings pleasure. The pleasure should not be dependent on the accomplishment of some task or goal. The thing I have in mind is not done for the sake of productivity or efficiency; it is anti-utilitarian. It’s the kind of thing that fills in the open spaces on the hourly planner, which doesn’t really cross any items off any list, but which never feels like wasted time.
In short, it is good to do some things for the sheer joy of it, and not for any other purpose. There is something here which we share with other creatures. While animals are guided largely by instincts, they each have their own personalities and they also engage in playfulness which has no strict Darwinian logic to it, not that I am a Darwinian. Sometimes a dog just wants to run around the yard in big loops as fast as it can. There’s a pleasure inherent to the sensation of motion, balance, and even the aesthetics of a finely executed jump or swoop. See for example how the birds seem to enjoy playing in the wind, for the same reason children and child-hearted adults enjoy holding their hand out the car window on the highway, playing on the flowing air like the aileron of a jet.
If your life is so full of lists and efficiency and every-moment-scheduled activity such that there is no room for these kinds of things, or if the thought of it induces a mix of anxiety and guilt because you’re captive to an inflexible productivity mindset, I shake my finger at you, though in a friendly way.
My friend, we are human beings, not machines. We are mind, body, soul, and spirit, not algorithm, subroutine, and hydraulics. A human life, at a human pace, is one of those universal aspirations of all people everywhere (with varied manifestations of course). The French term, joie de vivre captures something of this essential joy in being. To lose this thing I’m trying to describe in any measure is to slide towards the mechanistic, robotic, slave-like inhumanity. Chesterton makes a related point in his chapter called The Maniac in the book Orthodoxy. Allow me to quote the relevant section:
The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
I rarely read Chesterton without a smile on. His writing is so colourful, even playful. His mind jumps around between ideas and is always running here and there on the page, the reader at times struggling to keep up. And then at the end of a few paragraphs he puts the finishing touches on some zany idea and it comes into focus for the reader with a shock, like having been led into the Sistine chapel in darkness and then having someone suddenly flip on the lights. (Does the Sistine chapel have artificial lights? My metaphor depends on it.) I remember when I first read this paragraph above, how delighted I was. I had never thought of reason and madness that way before, and it gave me a new and permanent enjoyment of little ’causeless’ and ‘useless’ actions. Children are, of course, the ultimate example of this. They are playfulness incarnate, and have much to teach us in this regard.
Another fine example comes from the movie Chariots of Fire, where a conflict arises between the gifted runner Eric Liddell and his ministry-focused sister. She thinks he should quit running since it accomplishes nothing for the kingdom, but he sees something in the running that she cannot – some worth that is in and of itself, not dependent on some other measurable accomplishment. “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” But lest this attitude be taken as a being fundamentally at odds with a life lived fully for God’s glory, I want to point out that after his epic performance in the 1924 Olympics, during which his conviction to keep the Sabbath engendered no small amount of publicity, he became a missionary to China where he eventually died at the age of 43, a prisoner in a Japanese internment camp during World War 2. His love, concern, and self-sacrificing generosity towards his fellow inmates left an indelible mark on those who survived.
There is an application here for those in demanding and important vocations, perhaps especially ministry, since it concerns eternal things. There is an understandable way of thinking that says something like I can’t possibly read a novel or take up a hobby or learn a new instrument when there are people suffering and I can do something about it. This can work for a while, but I see at least three problems with it. First, this mentality is at odds with the natural rhythms of work and rest that God has designed us for. This attitude leads towards burnout. Second, there is a messiah complex, or the seeds of it, in that approach. Third, a life crammed to the ceiling with work is not a good model for others to emulate. Those in ministry especially are to be ‘an example’ to regular folks. But a life with no margin, no niches carved out for the simple pleasures described above, is not balanced or healthy. This is not to say we should not work hard, put in long hours, or have certain seasons of especially intense exertion. One can do all those things and yet preserve the kind of childlikeness, freedom to rest, and simple pleasures I’ve been trying to describe.
So to return to my opening exhortation: go ahead and do that thing for the sheer joy of it. Who knows? You may even find yourself feeling God’s pleasure in it.