Don't Forget to Sharpen Your Saw


This is a shameless plug for having fun. Good, clean fun. Or as The Family: A Proclamation to the World calls it, "wholesome recreational activities.”  This important principle appears in the Proclamation at the end of a long list of principles upon which “successful marriages and families are established and maintained”: Faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, and wholesome recreational activities.

After a whirlwind summer punctuated by holidays, church camps, and a family trip, I’ve been pondering the the role of recreation in our family. I love that Church leaders put recreational activities on this list of essentials. What can I say? I like to have fun. I often find myself pondering the boundaries and definition of wholesome recreation as I consider how to spend my time. I’m convinced that recreation is important, but it can be hard to know just what (and how much) is appropriate.

Part 1: Recreation is good...

Recreation is not emphasized in the word of God. The scriptures are basically mum on the subject, with just a few verses merely alluding to it. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Mosiah 4:27, and Doctrine and Covenants 59:18-20 could be used to argue in favor of recreation, but I can't find it or any synonyms such as leisure, fun, play, or relaxation encouraged directly. I'm sure Christ knew when and how to have fun, but lesiure time is only tenuously referenced in New Testament accounts of weddings, feasts, and the occasional nap in the back of a boat. (The best place to look for wholesome recreation is probably Church history. Those early Mormons, including Joseph Smith, knew how to work hard and play hard.)

In General Conference, we reminded of the other principles of successful families far more often than recreation, and when recreation is mentioned it is almost always warning against excessive or unwholesome activities. There are a couple gems though:

Having spoken in praise of labor, I must also add a kind word for leisure. Just as honest toil gives rest its sweetness, wholesome recreation is the friend and steadying companion of work. Music, literature, art, dance, drama, athletics—all can provide entertainment to enrich one’s life and further consecrate it. Ironically, it sometimes takes hard work to find wholesome leisure.
— Elder D. Todd Christofferson, October 2010
Keeping one’s mind occupied with constructive, useful things on a constant basis prevents Satan from having success in idle minds. Good music, art, literature, recreation, and other worthy pastimes can help establish proper patterns in one’s mind and conduct.
— Elder Marvin J. Ashton, October 1990
Rest and physical exercise are essential, and a walk in the fresh air can refresh the spirit. Wholesome recreation is part of our religion, and a change of pace is necessary, and even its anticipation can lift the spirit.
— President Ezra Taft Benson, October 1974

Maybe recreation wasn’t emphasized historically because free time and leisure activities were limited. I’m not sure. I wonder if the relative silence on the subject today is because people in general don’t need a lot of extra encouragement to take a break, play, or go on vacation. (By the way, I think there are those, especially within the Church, who actually do need extra encouragement to take a break, play, or go on vacation.) the aseticism inherent in most world religions seems at constant risk of being taken to extremes where wholesome, appropriate recreation is rejected as sinful or ungodly.  (I don't want to nitpick certain religions, but there are plenty of examples in the history of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. See here for a recent example.) 

It’s safe to say this is contrary to the nature of happiness. Our church buildings have basketball courts, missionaries have preparation day, and general authorities have a month off each summer. We know God rested on the seventh day. I wonder if he took time to do something fun on the sixth!

Need some secular motivation? Science backs up the value of recreation, too. A small sample of examples:

The American Institute of Stress (sounds like a fun place to work) estimates that workplace stress costs the US economy $300 billion in lost productivity annually.

The NPR podcast Hidden Brain recently highlighted some interesting scientific findings about the value of vacations:

"Vacations, especially those that take one into the grandeur of nature, can induce a transcendent feeling of awe. And a sense of awe, researchers found, can increase ethical decision making and generosity.” (learn more here.) 

"A good vacation leaves most of us feeling, well, good. Maybe even better than good. But how long does that vacation high last? Researchers in Germany tracked a group of school teachers. They found the teachers had higher levels of engagement at work and lower burnout rates after their vacations. However, the positive effects were all but gone a month later. The takeaway may be that we may need to get away from it all just a little more often.” (learn more here.)

My mission president Paul Norton used to always say, “You have to sharpen your saw,” meaning that if you never take a break from work, your effort will actually become less and less effective as you "dull" over time, like a saw that never stops cutting long enough to be sharpened and therefore becomes less and less efficient.

 I’ve found this to be true daily, weekly, and yearly. In my efforts as a husband, father, teacher, and bishop, I benefit from periodic respite. Think of the word for a moment: re-creation. The dictionary says very simply that recreation is "activity done for enjoyment when one is not working” but if you look at the Latin root, recreare meant to "create again" or “ renew”.  The word evolved in Middle English to denote "mental or spiritual consolation." If you’ve ever come back from a weekend getaway (or even a nice lunch break) feeling motivated and productive, it’s because in a sense, you’ve been “re-created.” Refreshed, reset, revitalized. A new you.

Part 2: Except when it's wrong.

Most references to recreation in General Conference are warnings about excessive or inappropriate recreation. Considering what we hear from the prophets on the topic, the word “wholesome” is key and unwholesome recreation is a more common problem than people failing to have fun. I’ll share two prophetic teachings on the subject that have been especially meaningful to me. The first is about recreation that can be physically risky. As someone who’s long enjoyed what many see as “thrill seeking” activities, this teaching from President James E. Faust has been a great guide:

Some of you may think that you will discover your strengths and abilities by living on the edge. Perhaps you also think it is a way to find your identity or manliness. Your identity, however, cannot be found from thrill seeking, such as intentionally and unnecessarily exposing your life or your soul to any kind of danger, physical or moral. There will always be enough risks that will come to you naturally without your having to seek them out. Your strength and identity will come from honoring your priesthood, developing your talents, and serving the Lord. Each of you will have to work very hard to qualify for your eternal potential. It will not be easy. Finding your true identity will tax your ability far beyond climbing a dangerous cliff or speeding in a car or on a motorcycle. It will require all of your strength, stamina, intelligence, and courage.
— President James E. Faust, October 1995

The second is in reference to spiritually risky recreation, and this one has helped me with even more decisions. In his hallmark talk Good, Better, Best Elder Dallin H. Oaks said very simply, "Some young people are amusing themselves to death—spiritual death.” it's tempting to spend too much time in recreation, build our lives around our favorite recreation, or to get caught up in unwholesome activities. Each of these are spiritually damaging.

I don’t pretend to have the perfect schedule or a comprehensive list of wholesome activities. Much like keeping the Sabbath day holy, these are personal questions with personal answers and suppose we'll never get more than few fundamental specifics from the Church. But I know for myself, for example, that there’s a big difference between watching a questionable movie versus reading a quality book. There’s a big difference between mindlessly scrolling through social media and playing my guitar. If Satan can get us to spend our free time in unwholesome recreation, that is a great victory for him, especially in the family setting if we’re fooled into thinking we’re doing worthwhile activities together. There’s a big difference between all of us sitting in the living room staring at different screens and all of us going on a bike ride, playing a game, or dancing together.

A few questions that help us consider how to spend our time:

  • Does the activity reduce stress and anxiety, or increase them?
  • Does the activity foster and improve relationships?
  • Does the activity improve physical health?
  • Does the activity have educational value, whether intellectually or experientially?
  • Does the activity help me learn or develop a talent?
  • Does the activity allow me to enjoy and appreciate God’s creations?
  • Does the activity have the potential to drive away the spirit?
  • Does the activity take up too much time?
  • Does the activity require me to miss something that i know is essential?

It can take time and effort to find and enjoy recreation with family (money doesn't hurt either, although lack of money is no excuse for shoddy recreation). I’ve found for myself and my family that wholesome recreation is worth the effort required. I’ve further found that the Holy Ghost will always confirm and validate the value of worthy recreation and warn us when our recreation is excessive or inappropriate. Ironically, excessive or poor recreation leads to decreased pleasure, satisfaction, and self worth. The devil Screwtape in CS Lewis' famous Screwtape Letters writes of pleasure: 

"All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula." 

Seeking and following promptings regarding recreation has led to great blessings like deepened relationships, improved health, fond memories, important life lessons, increased vision, widened perspective, and greater gratitude. I struggle to express how grateful I am to live in a time, place, and circumstance that affords me periodic recreation. Some of my most cherished experiences with family and friends are thanks to wholesome recreational activities. Along with work, service, and daily devotion, these experiences help define who we become over time. 

Perhaps I could conclude the way my Dad ended every letter during my mission:

Be good and have fun!