carpe dem diems: seize your leisure

(It works slightly better in an American accent.)

The other day my Medium ‘Daily Digest’ delivered me a post about leisure, featuring this quote from monk David Steindl-Rast:

Leisure is the virtue of those who give time to whatever it is that takes time 

I’ve talked before (here and here) about leisure time making up a precious tiny proportion of most people’s lives; employers buy the use of our time, which is given back to us for our own use in specific chunks (weekends and evenings, if we’re lucky). However, what we think of as our leisure time is still not fully available to us: the active components of our work force us to set it aside for mental detox or recovery time. This means that not only is leisure time scarce, but we cannot freely benefit from it. One does not simply complete the three peaks challenge the day after keyhole surgery; similarly, what we do on a Wednesday night is limited by severely depleted physical and mental energies. In essence, leisure is not something that is within our control.

Having often thought (and resented) this, I liked this idea that leisure is something we practise, rather than passively inhabit. Allowing ourselves to give the time that’s due to each task (e.g., tidying my room in service of a peaceful home environment; investing in relationships), rather than wishing it away on whatever feels most pressing (deadlines), seems a nice way of consciously assigning value to things other than whatever we are induced, under pressure by others, to consider important. It feels psychologically healthy, and it’s a way of regaining control.

It’s a nice idea, but is it realistic? It’s all very well for monks (and students!), but in these troubled times, many people have to take what jobs they can get on what terms they can get, thereby risking not being able to give time to what needs time for the sake of putting food on the table. Then, if leisure is a virtue, it’s yet another good thing that the wage slave is unable to attain. Virtues should be accessible to all, shouldn’t they?

Maybe the merit of the idea is not about time. I don’t know how to ensure that we have free time not only to detox from stress, but to pursue what we like or find fulfilling (if our main pursuit is not that) – I wish I knew. How many of us, for example, can expect to be paid to practise our hobbies? Yet it would be nice to reclaim some agency, some mental autonomy somewhere, especially if we think we’re put upon in other areas of life. Now it feels slightly more accessible. We control our minds (maybe!) and we should be able to choose to banish stress and worry when we leave the office, and message a friend or consider the meaning of life on the bus home, rather than staring blankly at the KFC wrapper someone left on the floor next to the discarded Evening Standard. A virtue isn’t an action, after all, it’s a mental discipline.

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