“We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.” – Bertrand Russell
My childhood consisted of large swathes of time listening to music, lying on the couch in the living room with a record playing, or upstairs in my bedroom next to a cheap little radio. I suppose I would daydream. Think about impossible things. Conjure up ridiculous scenarios of love and adventure in my head. It’s not as if I was completely inactive – I played games of tag with my siblings and neighbor children, badminton, even hours of tossing up a ball or orange into the air and catching it. With my best friends, I played lots of imaginary games that always involved boats or forts or mansions. But I did have lots of down time. And I think that down time shaped a lot of who I am today. Mostly a good thing, I think.
Not only are people not getting enough down time in America today, they feel incredibly guilty about what they are not able to accomplish. At least that’s true for me. I always think I should be doing something more with my life, and this line of thought haunts many people. I read an opinion piece by Tim Kreider in the New York Times entitled “The Summer that Never Was”, who was ultimately lamenting about all the things he didn’t get to in the last three or four months. He didn’t get to Iceland, even though he has a standing invitation, and airfares were cheap. He didn’t see as much of his old friends as he had planned to, or have guests at his cabin, or go into the city enough. And now the summer was over, and he was consumed by a “toxic” level of regret. “The whole world of work and productivity still seems to me like an unconscionable waste of time; the only parts of life that really matter are the summers, the in-between times. . .” Kreider writes. I’m sure a lot of people would agree with this, although plenty others aren’t on an academic schedule and don’t have summers off in the first place.
Kreider, as much as I find his lament sad and pathetic, rings true when he says that reaching middle age changes you and makes you “. . .consider the possibility that the life you have right now might pretty much be it.” So true. Reaching 40 gave me as much an “oh-shit-I’m-running-out-of-time” feeling as the next person. There are plenty of people running around trying to fill up their lives with as much stuff/experiences/fame/or what have you, as possible.
I noticed right next to this on-line article an advertisement for another article, “Women Making an Impact”. So really, there’s no end to things that will make you feel like shit about your life. All those “shoulds” come crashing down on your head every night when you’re trying to get to sleep. It’s hard to shut them off. It’s hard not to believe that we must always be doing something to justify our existence. To fill up our life so that we’re not empty at the end of it.
So I look for wisdom on this from other sources. My uncle sends me bits from a blog called Brain Pickings (argh! all the blogs I should be reading!), and in it recently there has been an emphasis on the importance of leisure in our life. In fact, there is a book I very much want to find by German philosopher Josef Pieper called “Leisure, the Basis of Culture.” In it, he writes, “Leisure is not the attitude of the one who intervenes but of the one who opens himself; not of someone who seizes but of one who lets go, who lets himself go, and “go under”, almost as someone who falls asleep must let himself go. . .”
Likewise, Bertrand Russell, with his treatise on the importance of boredom, wrote, “I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony. . .a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as thought they were cut flowers in a vase.”
I think both of these men must have been very much against the 40 hour work week. How can we create great art or science, or anything else, if we’re too busy filling up our lives with what we think is life? We need down time to create.
I can’t remember any exact moments when I’ve thought of a story. Usually I think it spans several days or weeks to think of one. But in order to do so, I know I can’t be stressed out about work or anything else. I know I can’t be “busy”.
It is a mistake to think that leisure time is self-indulgent, or only for a certain class of people, as Brain Pickings points out. We all need it. We all need “an inner absence of preoccupation, a calm, an ability to let things go, to be quiet.”
And that, according to Bertrand Russell, leads to happiness. “A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.”
I know this isn’t always possible for people. There are lots of things at work that prevent people from living stress-free and with enough quiet to create. We need more support in our lives. We need a lot of things. I’m hoping that something will give with the punishing work week so many people have now.
I know a lot of parents now would not understand a kid who just loafed around listening to music all the time. I know a lot of kids wouldn’t understand it. Things have changed. I guess I’m just lucky to have had those moments.