The Merits of Idleness

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I think we can agree that the standard answer to many questions these days regarding time and schedule will be, "I'm busy." Dinner party next week? I'm busy. Eldest son (or daughter's) graduation? I'm busy. Maybe you can make it, but you'd be deliberately elbowing out time out of your busy schedule to do so. There are consequences to productivity and work, and that isn't worth risking. To be fair, work is important. We all need to put food on the table, pay the bills and serve our commitments. Beyond work, however, is a collective race in filling up our schedules.

Think of weekends where you're encouraged to go out and do stuff. Get involved. Attend talks, social events and get into new hobbies. If we're not productive, not doing something useful with our time - we're wasting it. Invest your time, and it pays you back eventually. Leisure is earned and comes far and few between.

I'm not saying that being productive or using time wisely shouldn't be encouraged. Anyone who knows me, knows well enough my wiry mind feeds for a great number of things to do, read and see. But I do wonder though, are we overvaluing productivity?

These days, there is no reason not to be engaged in work - even in the comfortable confines of your home. Instant notifications, Internet connectivity, and split-second communication have pressed the idea that what needs to be dealt with, can (and should) be dealt with now. The etiquette of responding work emails are prickly. It's the weekend, can I respond to this on Monday morning? Regardless of how you choose to react, the more obvious answer is an example of how we've lost control over our time, and more importantly, how we choose to spend it.

At times, there is guilt associated with not using your time "wisely." I slept the weekend away; best rest I ever had. The response is either admiration for wrestling away two whole days for recuperation or perplexion at how one could waste away two solid days doing nothing. The former also inspires a sort of envy for those who'd love the same thing, but busy weekend schedules don't allow for such pleasures.

Productivity culture has also been introduced to our children, with parents who insist on micromanaging their children's schedule. Their free time after school, during holidays and the weekend are filled with activities. Piano lessons, camps, football, etc. With the redefining of education, employability, and success - children are being taught that to succeed: you need to build an arsenal of talents, at the expense of a childhood of exploration and self-discovery. That there is no such thing as idleness and empty schedules are opportunities lost.

This message is hammered in even stronger with the rise of Silicon Valley masters like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and your list of successful people who, even in their spare time, somehow use it with a degree of productivity.

True idleness, it seems, isn't in anyone's positive vocabulary, and is often associated with laziness. Both, though existing on a similar linguistic spectrum, subtly mean different things.

Idleness, recreation and the right to call time your own are only at the cusp of your retirement. When you spend the remainder of your years away; finally the master of your time - which frankly, doesn't have much mileage left to it. It's something you earn. And though technological advances and industrialization seek to make us more efficient and save us more time, the truth is far from it. Efficiency with time only begets us to be more productive, and fill it up with more things to do.

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A Return to Walden

In 1854, Henry D. Thoreau, an American writer, and philosopher published Walden, a text of his reflections in life away from bustling civilization and the nation's increasing embrace of industrialization. His two-year experiment took him to Walden Pond, where he lived in days of simplicity and solitude.

While Walden explores a lot of different things, I was drawn to the aspect of Thoreau's exploration of a "deliberate life." His choice to remove himself from the norms of society; the importance of productivity and industrialization. He never removed himself fully from society, visiting the nearby village occasionally, but he mainly kept to his own. Deep in his reflections, and occupied with seeing to smaller mundane details of life and living in solitude.

Thoreau's philosophy and opinions on society may not hold up in its entirety, but there is a truth to be learned from his experiment, and one we've somehow lost: Time was his own.


I've discussed the merits of idleness on BFM 89.9's Bila Larut Malam, that you can listen to here. The discussion is in Malay: