Idling with intent: why nothing matters on holiday

My summer holiday is almost over and the merciless return to work will begin with a long drive home tomorrow. I say ‘merciless’, but my work is not particularly poorly paid, demeaning or dangerous. Like the majority of middle class graduates, my most bitter complaint would be that my work consumes some of the time and attention that I would sometimes like to lavish on other pursuits. It’s not much of a hardship: I am a hugely privileged person, and am not blind to that fact.

Yet even for people like me there is a long looking-forward to the weeks of summer, an enjoyment of them when they’re here (more or less whatever the weather), and a slight greying of the spirits when the calendar clicks forward, returning us to the rigours of our regular duties. No doubt this stems in part from an emotional attachment to summer that was formed in childhood, when the school bell rang our release in mid-July, not calling us back to class till the following September.  

This six-week liberty is not one that many adults enjoy, however privileged their lives. But even if we manage only a few days actually off, there is for many a shared sense of life slowing down, especially in summers with a World Cup or Olympic Games. There is such a feeling of general pause that many will not go on holiday in the height of summer as it feels like a wasted opportunity to relax in the firm’s time. 

For those who do take time off work, one thing is certain: they will be spending many more hours with people with whom their relationship is normally conducted in the remaindered moments between work and bed. This can be a shock. Whether home and life are shared with a lover, a group of friends or a spouse and kids (not to mention other possibilities omitted for purely stylistic reasons), the summer brings us into the crammed company of those to whom our devotion might otherwise appear theoretical or even formulaic. But there are always plenty of pieces in the weekend papers in which the stresses and strains of this proximity are grimly enumerated, and those affected by it might consult them. 

Which brings me to a campsite in South West Scotland where my own family and I have just spent a week surrounded by lots of what I’ll dare to call other ordinary families. They, like us, will have been drawn by inexpensive accommodation, the near-by beach, and an endless selection of children’s activities which managed to keep even our own pixel-fixated children occupied and non-vegetative. Although it was very far from paradisal, it was not a place of obvious tensions. Some of the dads (it usually is dads) may have been worried by the prospect of prolonged exposure to the wife’s mother, noisy kids, moody teenagers, a damp dog in a warm caravan; even perhaps to whatever single version of themselves remains when they are removed from the opportunities for invention that any workplace generously provides.  

But here’s a thing. Oh, it’s quite true that I heard the odd comment from a father encouraging his kids back into the soft play (“Have you been to the top? Go and have another try!”) so that he could relinquish his responsibilities for a while. (And, yes, I will declare an interest and confirm that I was given three half-mornings off for good behaviour in order to enjoy some solitude and catch up with reading.) But by far the most common sight I saw was groups of people (family or friends, I can not say) who seemed entirely content to be together, enjoying their company and progressing happily from one activity to the next. There were the kids shinning up the climbing wall, encouraged by proud grandparents; other parents watched their children attempting archery or fencing. There were sportier types who sped round the site on go karts. And then there were dozens of people loitering in the shallow end of the pool, quietly chatting as their children swam around like mermaids, rejoicing and delighting in the watery fun of it all. 

Here they were, absent from work, apparently surviving each other without concern. They weren’t busy or productive, strategic, planned, on task; they weren’t on some vaguely purposeful annual leave (dread phrase) or even on vacation, with work to do in their luggage: they were simply and unequivocally on holiday, happy to be doing absolutely nothing except enjoy the company of those lovers, friends or families who meant the world to them.  

And even in this celebration of idleness, we find something to learn and imitate; for nothing is wasted. What these Scottish campers and caravanners remind us is that the essence of summer is to be a time of final ripening as the grain stands tall beneath the longed-for sun, awaiting the scythe and the judgement of the buyers. In standing round together, enjoying a break towards the seasons’ end, holidaymakers remind us that, although there is value and character-formation in the dignity of our daily work, there is also much to be said for a proper Sabbath-rest as we allow the company of loved ones to do its own imperceptible work of perfecting us (‘fitting us for heaven’, as the carol puts it) just as surely as the ripening sun perfects the corn. 

As my own holiday draws to an end, I will think of it as a sort of sacrament of life’s final fruitfulness, something I have received as a sign of my own calling to be part of God’s abundant harvest, and a reminder of the work burnishing that will continue until my life’s end.

Of course, I can’t wait to get back home, either, for I am hugely advantaged in ardently loving the work I do. But, before the autumn leaves have fallen, I will try to find another slice of time to seek out all those friends who matter most, not for what the encounter might appear to achieve, but simply because of the mightily creative and restorative value of human relationship. 



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