On Time Well Spent

Lately I’ve been struggling with questions of how best to live my life. I hate to have idle hours and thrive on productivity. But I also relish relaxation and dread days scheduled with obligations and appointments. Striking the balance between these things is where I find myself increasingly caught. In an effort to be more present in my own life, I try to minimize the time I spend in front of screens (maybe not a great thing to advocate as the writer of a blog). By curbing my desire to wile away the hours watching mindless sitcoms or trolling facebook albums of distant acquaintances, I assure myself fewer opportunities to compare my life to others, I reduce my exposure to advertising, I lessen the hold that consumerism has on my lifestyle, I sleep better at night. My efforts to avoid screens as much as possible are fueled by a variety of convictions that hold sway over areas in my life beyond technology and entertainment.

But as I spend more and more time away from the computer and the TV, I find myself in the midst of a conundrum of sorts. There are more idle hours on my hands with which I do not know what to do. As a reader, I’m often engaged in a new novel and I love to hike, run, and walk my dog when the weather lends itself to outdoor recreation. Cooking and baking are pursuits that provide me with both pleasure and a sense of accomplishment which makes these hobbies well suited to multiple aspects of my disposition. I have a small circle of friends, a close family, and a wonderful husband, all of whom I spend a reasonable amount of time with on a fairly regular basis as well. There does come a point, however, at which these relaxing and even indulgent activities grow monotonous, when my go-to companions are otherwise occupied, and I feel the need to come up with a new diversion. This is often the precise moment when I am filled with the desire to get out of the house. Unfortunately, more often than not, getting out of the house involves spending money. Much as I hate to admit it, strolling through the aisles of Target or the mall are activities I guiltily enjoy and often resort to as they make the time pass more easily and don’t necessarily require doling out any cash (although nine times out of ten, they end in some transaction).

Life, however, shouldn’t be simply about passing the time. I wholeheartedly agree with the European view of life, that we should work to live rather than the American mentality of living to work. But much as I try to embrace the slow-paced and indulgent lifestyle more commonly practiced across the pond, there’s a constant strain of the American work ethic in me that I cannot seem to drop. So when I attempt to spend an entire weekend simply lounging around the house, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m doing something wrong. I read, I take my dog on hikes, I spend time with my husband, I indulge in a movie, I cook a nice dinner, but I worry that I’m not really living my life. I’m certainly partaking in things that I enjoy and allowing myself a much-needed break from the hustle and bustle of the workday week. But after lazy weekends such as these, I wake up on Monday morning feeling that I have nothing to show for my two days off, that my time could have been better spent, that I haven’t engaged in anything meaningful during those 48 hours of freedom.

I’m not sure how to solve this problem because I can’t figure out how to frame it in the first place. Am I failing to lead an optimally fulfilling life by virtue of my own poor decisions or am I living correctly but stunted by the infusion of work hard mentality? Am I simply experiencing a quarter-life crisis or is my outlook on life skewed by too novels and movies? Are my attempts to live with fewer screens futile in this age of convenience, when boredom reigns supreme because we have mastered the solutions to so many of our ancient ancestor’s problems?

More and more, I’m coming to think that it’s the latter. With such rapid advances in technology and design and society, tasks that used to occupy so much of the average human’s time are now done completely by machine, or simplified such that they can be completed in a matter of minutes, or outsourced to people who are paid to do the grunt work for us. In an effort to fill up all of our now-excess free time, many people in the US simply work more hours each day while some European nations enjoy larger chunks of leisure time for wining, dining, and socializing. Other working people head to their cozy homes at night to aimlessly surf the internet or mindlessly flip through TV channels. Through the power of the internet, anyone can discover and master rare art forms and quirky hobbies and social groups are created around an unlimited number of common interests. We have created an impressive and creative array of options for entertaining ourselves now that we can pop our meals in the microwave, toss dirty dishes in a dish washer, pay to keep our homes in good shape, hire someone else to clean our houses and walk our dogs.

A recent development in the grand scheme of human history, this influx of free time has yet to reach all corners of the world. And for those lucky enough to enjoy spare time, it comes as both a blessing and a curse, a luxury that comes with heavy responsibility. There are millions if not billions of people in the world to whom these technological advances that make life more simple are positively unheard of. As civilization advances, so do the number and weight of its social problems, from hunger to poverty to pollution, crime, exploitation, oppression. If those of us who gain leisure time from these advances don’t spend any of it addressing the advancement of these concurrent problems, who will?

I’m a firm believer that, by virtue of having (unearned) privilege, the most fortunate among us also carry a moral responsibility to dispense some of that privilege onto others. The amount of time and energy people spend on activities with no larger purpose than momentary entertainment – browsing websites or watching reality TV or tossing back a few drinks at the bar – are not things we necessarily need to give up. In fact, these are necessary forms of release that allow us to deal with the stress and anxiety inherent to live itself. But if we never critically examine how we spend our time, if we are constantly trying to avoid the reality of our lives and the world around us, what is the point of living at all? If we cannot spare just a few hours each week to truly consider and act in the interest of others, to consider the problems that exist in the world and how we may be positioned to solve them through actions small and large, then can we consider any of our time to be well spent?


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