“A plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in the process, because they know nothing about him and consequently are afraid of him.”
― George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London
“My father taught me to work, but not to love it. I never did like to work, and I don’t deny it. I’d rather read, tell stories, crack jokes, talk, laugh — anything but work.”
― Abraham Lincoln
You might have noticed that I’ve gone incommunicado the past 2 months. I haven’t been writing, as you can see. I haven’t been answering email, or checking in on Twitter. I had an occasional urge to write a new post here, but that always quickly subsided and I got back to doing whatever it was that I was doing. Which usually did not involve sitting at a computer.
This new lifestyle started in mid-June, when my wife was set to leave town for about a week and I was to stay home with my 2 kids. Right before she left, I lost my phone. I wasn’t too worried about it, and I decided to just to replace it with a prepaid flip phone rather than another smart phone.
Then on the day she left, my laptop battery charger stopped working. She had taken her laptop, as well as our Android tablet, and so between my lost phone and uncharged laptop I found myself suddenly without internet access.
So there I was, in just a few days I went from having a normal life with all the glories and pitfalls of the imaginary leash created by smart phones and laptops – to total freedom. A sweet, quiet, liberating detachment from the constant communication we surround ourselves with by carrying the internet in our pockets.
This had surprisingly significant effects. When the kids would escape to the playground to play with each other, I typically would have used that moment of freedom to do something really useful like check Twitter on my phone, or read some sensationalized news article on cnn.com. But I didn’t have my phone, so I just sat there and watched the kids. And read books. And sometimes just stared into space and rested my brain that hadn’t been truly rested in decades (though I hadn’t realized it until then).
When my kids did something Instagram-worthy, I had to just capture the memory in my head to tell a story later, rather than chase them around with my smartphone camera.
And after just a day or two of adjusting to this scary sound of information silence, it felt shockingly great. I had accidentally stumbled upon a powerful realization: The increasing ease of immediate information in this technology age has created a direct attack on the art of leisure. Even when we’re not at work, we’re working. We’ve created non-paying jobs out of thin air. Keeping up with the news, keeping up with our Netflix queues, taking pictures and sharing them, texting constantly, checking Twitter and Facebook… You get the picture.
“I don’t envy “busy.” Busy means having a schedule, not living life. What I really covet is leisure and peace of mind. Those who have both, have it all.”
― Donna Lynn Hope
All of this was by chance, of course. I didn’t plan some grand scheme of becoming disconnected and, ultimately, deeply relaxed and present and in the moment. I mean, that was a state I knew I wanted to reach, but I didn’t conceive of a plan to lose my phone and break my laptop charger to achieve it. Nor did I realize that losing those things would be a good thing.
But there I was, disconnected and present and relaxed. Practicing real leisure for the first time in a long time.
That was two months ago, but after that I was in no hurry to return to the busy world we live in without leisure.
We’re a culture of people checking Facebook while sitting at red lights (or worse, while driving). People rushing from place to place, always behind and stressed. Filling their weekends with chores and activities then complaining that they didn’t get recharged as Monday morning rolls around. People getting anxious because they’re falling behind on their Netflix queue, or because they’ve caught up on all their shows and need to hurry and find a new one to kill time in the evening (which, I’ll argue, is not real leisure). I’ve even recently had a discussion with a friend who was stressed about making their vacation plans. It’s insanity!
So here’s my advice: Stop! Be still. Rest. Go find a quiet spot where no cars can access and people are few and far between, and just read a fictional book that teaches you nothing, one that is only meant for entertainment. Or, better yet, forget the book and just sit quietly with your own thoughts. Embrace that scary sound of silence.
And it will be scary at first.
Once you’ve done this, do it again. Increase the duration and frequency until you actually look forward to truly doing nothing.
“Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.”
― Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis Of Culture
I’m sure some of you are thinking “Sure, easy for you to say BNL. You’ve already achieved financial independence and quit your job. You have all the time in the world now. Have you already forgotten what it was like when you did have a job?”
No, I haven’t forgotten what it was like. If I had, I wouldn’t be inclined to sit in front of my laptop and write this down (an activity that certainly is not leisure). But I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to see things with a new perspective now that I’m in this early retirement, and I can see things more clearly. And what I see is a culture of people that are so damned busy and stressed, and they don’t realize that much of the busyness and stress is self created. Partially because it’s in our nature, but mostly because it’s scary not to be busy. I would even go so far as to say that people are proudly addicted to their busyness, without realizing the harm they’re doing to themselves.
And after seeing all of that clearly, I realized that I was the epitome of that self-created stress, and if I could go back and give my 30 year old self any advice I would say to slow down. Get rid of the non-essential activities, reject overly high ambitions and all the anxiety that comes with it, and enjoy each individual moment for what it is. Proudly embrace the art of true leisure.
There’s something wonderful about finishing up a transaction at the bank, only to notice a new used book store across the street, then spending the next two hours browsing their selection completely unplanned. Or riding your bike 20 miles down an unknown trail just to see how far it goes. Or walking 3 miles to a destination when you could have biked or driven, just because you’re in a walking mood and in no hurry. Or listening to someone apologize for being late, and honestly responding that it’s OK because you’re not in a hurry. I point these things out because they’re all things I did this week, while practicing my newly renewed art of leisure.
These things may not all be possible for you right now, since I’m sure most of you have jobs, kids, and other responsibilities. But if you start analyzing your time and figuring out what “responsibilities” you can start stripping out of your life, I’m sure you can all free up significant time for real leisure. And if you do it, you won’t regret it.
“We can say without exaggeration that the present national ambition of the United States is unemployment. People live for quitting time, for weekends, for vacations, and for retirement; moreover, this ambition seems to be classless, as true in the executive suites as on the assembly lines. One works not because the work is necessary, valuable, useful to a desirable end, or because one loves to do it, but only to be able to quit – a condition that a saner time would regard as infernal, a condemnation.”
― Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food