The Richness of Well Wasted Time
In this article, I’d like to reflect on several themes related to time and my experience of it, as an academic.
In an article speaking of wasting time, Tim McCauley draws our attention to the necessity of “wasting” time “in order to accomplish anything truly human” – like friendship, love, and contemplation. He encourages us to appreciate how our language and thinking about time are often shaped by the marketplace, or a way of thinking that turns people and things into instruments for some other purpose. After all, we regularly speak of spending time, investing in relationships, and so forth. In higher education, this other purpose is usually a successful career, or favor on the job market for those early in their career. In some cases the purpose can be education and intellectual achievement itself, or more insidiously, a professed higher vocation or spiritual calling. While these goals are good, they don’t justify treating certain things – especially people and relationships – as mere instruments. Yet sometimes our pursuit of these goals can push us to do just that and can make us blind to the intrinsic value of who and what is immediately around us. We can unconsciously turn ourselves into instruments as we (unconsciously) make ‘success’ our primary goal. So we need to think of ways we might check this tendency. With McCauley, I suggest that how we structure time can help us to do this.
Despite seeming a quaint anachronism, the academic calendar at Oxford helps to check the dominance of this instrumental or marketplace thinking. It’s organized around various feast days and celebrations observed by the Church of England (for example, the first term of the year is named Michaelmas after the Feast of St Michael and All Angels). These various feasts and celebrations are in many cases still celebrated in colleges. While most academics nowadays are overbooked and overworked, this calendar and the traditions that surround it encourage us to make room for leisure and genuine human connection.
While this calendar’s history and the setting in which it’s followed are unique, it’s not difficult to imagine how one might borrow ideas from it to organize time in a different setting. Of course, this needs to be done with attention to the setting one finds oneself in, and what may be possible in one setting may not be possible in another. But something as simple as time set aside to eat with one’s colleagues rather than alone at one’s desk can make space for this human connection. All the better if these routines enjoy institutional support. For a bold example, one company implemented an email “amnesty” for its employees between Christmas and New Year’s.
In my college we have a formal dinner in the Great Hall several times a week. This tradition transforms something as routine as eating into an opportunity to delight in the company and conversation – in a word, the fellowship – of other students and academics. Complemented with time of quiet (often solitude) directed to study and reflection, this ordering of time has made my life on the whole much richer than it otherwise would be. In this way, the calendar reminds me that time can be structured by something more friendly to human life than the drive to maximize some all-consuming good, whether that good be something like material wealth or, more subtly, academic success. Its rhythms make it a little easier for me to
appreciate what McCauley describes as the “mysticism of the mundane” and I would describe as a heightened consciousness of the intrinsic value encountered in everyday life (often to do with people, relationships, and the beauty of what surrounds me). Ironically, I also think this arrangement of time has made me more productive.
Aristotle is known for emphasizing the value of leisure for intellectual inquiry. He distinguishes leisure from relaxation. Though relaxation is important, it doesn’t directly promote the deepest values that constitute a good human life – it’s more like a medication to ease weariness. Instead, he understands leisure as promoting these deeper values. See Book 7 of his Politics, where he also holds that intellectual inquiry is the deepest value that contributes to a good life. I would emphasize friendship and communion with other people, including the divine, over intellectual inquiry, and we might add things to the list like creation and appreciation of beautiful things. But this is consistent with Aristotle’s point: his account of the importance of leisure is just as helpful with regard to these values as it is to intellectual inquiry.
On Aristotle’s account, leisure is meant to be productive by providing space for what really matters. A recent New York Times article pointed out how proximity, repeated unscheduled interactions, and an ability to let one’s guard down are conditions necessary for forming lasting friendships It could be argued some form of leisure is necessary in meeting these conditions. Further, the rhythm of work and leisure that structure (in my case) college life can round out an education otherwise focused on extremely specialized research. In other words, how time is structured – with the Oxford calendar providing one example – can be conducive to education in a broad sense, as it opens the space we need to realize various deep human values.
Finally, on a slightly different note, it could be said that there is a moral imperative to devote part of one’s time to leisure. On the face of things, this idea might sound strange or incoherent, but it isn’t if we take Aristotle’s idea as a starting point. It’s easy for us to become passive to forces in our environment. This could include a workplace culture that encourages dishonesty with clients, or the political slant that dominates our Facebook feed. One way to resist this is to set aside time for being alone with one’s thoughts and for conversation with good friends. This is to allow time for reflection, to think critically and carefully about one’s values and commitments, and to listen to others who can see what you cannot. A person can’t do this without leisure.
In brief, I’m suggesting a person is wealthy when they devote time to communion with others, intellectual inquiry, and the appreciation of beauty, among other things. After all, wealth just is an abundance of valuable possessions and these things, though not possessions, are what are most valuable.