A relatively mild November weekend has been conducive to pondering the concept of leisure. It is a concept I’ve felt increasingly protective of ever since I was automated and downsized out of a job a dozen years ago. It was a job I’d worked at for over 31 years–years that were, for the most part, reasonably satisfying.
That said, the majority of those years were taken up by working 55 to 60 hours per week at night time. This meant that I had more or less chosen to be isolated from mainstream, daytime society and sacrificed some of my health to the scientifically proven strains of working night shifts. Those strains resulted in me gaining difficult to control weight plus becoming pre-diabetic despite eating prudent portions of healthy foods and taking strenuous exercise. (Until beginning to work mainly graveyard shifts, I was extremely skinny and enjoyed top-notch health.) So there are eventual, serious costs to pay when one chronically stretches the natural human circadian rhythm.
The slow, almost imperceptable decline in health wasn’t the only major sacrifice. Personal freedom and leisure became scarce. Time spent with family and friends was at a premium. Time to follow hobbies, intellectual interests, and travel was greatly curtailed. Just hanging out, doing nothing at all was a rare treat. These were the costs of undertaking a career that provided satisfaction, public recognition, and the means of paying for food, housing, medical care, and occasional distant vacation trips.
In hindsight, I was immersed in the “Boiling Frog” syndrome. The premise of the analogy is if a proverbial frog is placed in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately leap out to save its own life. Meanwhile, if the proverbial frog is placed in a pot of lukewarm water and the heat is slowly increased, the frog will supposedly be unaware of the danger, will be lulled into complacency, and eventually be cooked to death. Although in actual life, frogs do not behave this way, the metaphor is useful as a warning about failing to act in one’s own physical self-interest.
This self-interest did not become obvious until I was pulled out of the allegorical pot of boiling water twelve years ago. Ever since that realization, I have become highly selective about how I spend my life. I now pretty much play and work at my own leisure. Although I’m not a member of the so-called “leisure class”, it’s likely that I enjoy more leisure than most of the people who “officially” belong to that social class do.
Although I superficially understood that leisure is a major component of freedom, I hadn’t fully realized this fact until I could actually experience plenty of it after deciding to retire early. I had previously bought into the prevailing social paradigm that we are only entitled to enjoy a limited amount of leisure and personal freedom (the contemporary iteration of the Protestant Work Ethic). Many workers today rightly believe that they should not use all of their earned vacation and sick leave because doing so will risk their bosses’ perceptions regarding the employees’ usefulness to the corporation. Therefore, they believe it is best to sacrifice their leisure in favor of benefit to the corporation.
With the aid of 20/20 hindsight, I see that I was guilty of this very fear. During my last five years of working a company job, I waived several weeks of earned vacation and practically all of my sick-leave because of the implied need to be loyal to the “company family”. I certainly didn’t want to be thought of as a slacker. One piece of advice to my younger readers is this: Be careful of entering this mental rabbit hole.
Philosophers such as Aristotle, have said that leisure is a type of personal freedom that “distinguishes human liberty from coercion and constraint”–notably regarding toil and work. We note that a civilization that overvalues work tends to undervalue freedom and leisure.
In contemporary society, workers’ leisure and “free time” are limited to, at best, two days out of each week. More and more, workers have only one day off which may not even be consistent. Also, with the advent of electronic connectivity, many employees are always “on call” by default. If a person is expected to be reachable during the formally assigned off-duty time, there is no bona fide free time to enjoy unabashed leisure. In addition, some of the remaining free time is used to prepare for another week at work. In our present society, true leisure is available to only the most fortunate people. Hence, bona fide freedom is realistically a very rare luxury.
The question of the leisure naturally flows into the question of democracy. In exchange for the necessity of working, we give up our democratic autonomy. Nearly every workplace is autocratic and hierarchical. Employees work at the pleasure of the employer. Existential disagreements with a company mission eventually lead to employee dismissal. No work usually means: no reliable means to eat, acquire shelter for oneself, nor obtain healthcare. Meantime, global employment is a hot-button controversy on its own.
The situation boils down to whether or not we live in a fully free, democratic civilization. If we do not have reasonable freedom to enjoy a modicum of leisure and self-determination without the risk of becoming homeless, our society is not free. It is best to carefully discern the proportions of work and leisure one spends in life. The earlier one realizes this, the better.
These reflections are just a few of my observations and opinions. I think they’re worth pondering.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes the English biographer, essayist, feminist, and novelist, Virginia Woolf. “If you are losing your leisure, look out!–It may be you are losing your soul.”