Atelic Activity and the Sabbath


I have been thinking quite a bit about this article that I read recently in The New York Times:  The Problem of Living in the Present  It is very interesting, as it describes how we spend our time, and how we think about our activities.  Specifically, it contrasts “telic” activities with “atelic” activities.  “Telic” activities have a specific purpose, and they are completed when the ending is reached:  writing a paper, delivering a lecture, driving home from work, making dinner, etc.  By contrast, “atelic” activities are not “complete-able”–listening to music, spending time with family and friends, enjoying nature, bird-watching, etc.  All of these activities exist in the moment, for the extent of the time you give to them, but they are never finished–the point of the activity is not its completion.

Aristotle compared these activities using the categories of time.  According to the article, he argued that for “telic” activities [he called them “kinetic”], satisfaction is always either in the past or in the future–it is either yet to be achieved [dinner is still in the oven], or it is finished [dinner is done].  The point is, these kind of activities do not promote life in the present; “atelic” activities, by contrast, are fully realized in the present–in spending time with loved ones, you are not “on the way” to satisfaction, you are already there:  the doing is the end, not a means to an end.

Obviously, the point is that we need to be focusing more on atelic activities, and their “present pleasures” rather than worrying so much about completing tasks, which either turns our orientation to the past, or fixes it on the future.

All this was in the back of my mind during class yesterday, as we were talking about Sabbath-keeping.  Luther’s emphasis in his explication of the 4th Commandment in the Large Catechism is on “hallowing” the day, rather than “resting,” but he understood the value of rest, too.  However, here I am much more inspired by a Jewish understanding of Sabbath, particularly Abraham Heschel’s treatment of it in his classic book, The Sabbath. His language for this distinction between types of activities is “being” vs. “doing,” with the point that the Sabbath is carved out for “being.”  Christians sometimes can be dismissive or critical of Jewish laws, particularly all of the proscriptions that govern the Sabbath, but that is a misread of what they are for, and how they function.  Heschel reminds us that they are gifts, boundaries put in place that carve out intentional time for us to remember who we are, the relationships that constitute our identity, and live out of that identity–for just one day–rather than our work-based [our “doing-based”] identity.  Personally, I can’t hear that message enough, because I spend way too much of my time doing, and not nearly enough being.

The article emphasizes that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves–there are tasks that need doing, after all [those emails aren’t going to answer themselves!]; and yet, at the same time, living in the present has its own value as well that must be nurtured and tended.

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