Just take it easy, man
When I arrived in Holland, where I lived for six years teaching and researching at T.U. Delft, I brought with me a fair amount of baggage. Only half of it was the stuff I packed. The rest were things I am still unpacking. To this day, alas.
I have juggled multiple roles most of my life, dating back to high school. Perhaps due to restlessness of mind, untamed curiousity, and a lack of discipline in choosing to do one thing over another. I have worked in some capactiy since I got my first job cleaning horse stalls at 14, and then painting, doing camera work for weddings, starting my own video graphics business, all while in school and spending my non-working hours studying or sleeping. In college, I was fortunate to go to a state school whose tuition I could afford with what I earned taping weddings, and doing grip work for videographers, and also in the video graphics business my best friend ran with me. Somehow I managed to squeeze in tennis and hiking, camping and other diversions on holidays until I graduated, then needed to earn a living, for real. Then I canvassed for NYPIRG while also directing TV shows (often for free), until I took a salaried job as a law clerk, at 21. Never was I at rest. Never did I stop moving. Never did I even for a little while have summer days free, it seems, to lie under a tree and just breathe. There was always something to do. Never did I just abide.
Time is money, and money is everything.
I had bills, a car to maintain, then an apartment and rent to pay, then a mortgage and insurance and bills, bills, bills. Everyone does. This is the world we have constructed for ourselves, where obligations overwhelm us, force us to labor so we don’t even have time to worry, and the labor itself causes worry, takes our time, and for many, crushes our souls.
But there was that brief moment, when I had arrived in The Netherlands, and only held one job, rather than several all at once. For a brief spell of time, I worked reasonable hours, doing something I really loved, and nothing more. My free time was significant, and I could read, and write, and start a family. My employer encouraged us to use our significant vacation time. The office shut down for significant spells of time, people went to summer homes, relaxed, seemed to enjoy doing nothing. I tried my best to do so too, and settled into a more humane routine. For a while, I abided, a bit.
Free time and leisure are not synonymous. Free time is what you have left when you aren’t playing or working. Leisure is something truly scarce, and the absence of it benefits those who require your labor, and your lack of reflection on the fact that you enjoy no real leisure. Most of our wants are manufactured. They are not physical, they are psychic, and we have been convinced we need a lot more than we do. This has, of course, been the case for thousands of years. But it is aggravated by instant communication and capitalism. My kids need new tablets. They want more toys. They need the latest fashions, newest sneakers, gadgets. Of course, so do we. A three year old cell phone is ancient technology, our cars, running fine with low mileage, are outdated. Passé.
The pandemic has poisoned our relationship with leisure as well. Every waking moment, especially if you live in a house with kids and have a job, is now coordinating basic care and online work and teaching. Any moment we might have had for quiet reflection seems to have been completely consumed, and all we have left is exhaustion.
When we say ... that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.
— Epicurus, "Letter to Menoeceus"
I blame Plato, a bit. Well, a lot. For a few hundred years, Greek philosophy and the state were quite contentedly involved with Epicureanism, in which a balanced life, centered around pleasure, friendship, happiness, and contemplative leisure, was a dominant philosophy. Simplifying, a LOT, Plato felt that justice could only be achieved through the possibility of punishment. But that was just like Plato’s opinion, man. For Epicureans, justice is achieved through a sort of social contract, where we seek out the pleasure of friendship, the value of contemplation, and enjoyment of peaceful society with others. Of course, when Christianity comes around, Plato’s ethic seems a good fit for social order based on the fear of God. Epicureanism, not so much. Rome flirted with Epicureanism, but by the first century Stoicism, and then under Christianity, Platonism prevailed. We are still firmly ensconced in the grip of Plato, and as Philip K. Dick argued: the empire never ended.
The phrase “work-life” balance should be a clue. If your life is contrary to your work and separated by a juxtapositional hyphen, something is terribly wrong. If the two are opposed, then you will never be at leisure, you will never be free. We should neither live to work nor work to live. We should but live. Of course, trapped as we are in a system that is rigged with ever more expensive and unattainable desires, and the belief that a lack of desire is somehow wrong, then we will remain beholden to the notion that every free moment is also somehow wrong, and we must monetize every hour.
So I missed my self-imposed deadline for this week’s blog entry. That’s ok. And yesterday, the family played hooky. Skipped Zoom classes. Took a nice long walk in the mid-day sun, enjoyed a meal on the terrace together, didn’t rush, didn’t check emails for a spell, didn’t bill hours. Did nothing but enjoy each other’s company, and that’s more of something than any work ever delivered.
Go play, take a day off, and don’t feel guilty about it. We deserve it. We need it. Just take it easy, man.