Work and leisure

One day last month amid the rains, I bundled off my family to the beach.  Two storms were threatening, but the foul weather did not deter us.  It wasn’t the swim in serene waters that I longed for, it was the leisure in the company of loved ones.

I thought I would never hear myself telling my children:  “You work too hard!  You need a break.”  But there I was, telling them exactly that. “Our weekend, by the way, will extend till Monday,” I announced.

When they were small, I became so used to seeing them dodge every possible chore around the house that I was convinced they belonged to the lost generation.  I worried that they were born seemingly bereft of any inclination for strenuous activity.   I blamed myself for not initiating them into the ethos of manual work that marked my own provincial childhood.

Later when they were in college, I noted a miraculous transformation. They would actually stay up nights to finish a requirement.  They would read furiously and write feverishly, as though the fate of the world depended upon their labor.  They skipped meals and did not complain.  These bursts of Puritan effort delighted me, but they never lasted long enough to grow into reassuring habits.  They would as easily slide back to their idle ways, bearing absolutely no memory of the breathless pace with which they had worked.

I hardly noticed it when they began working in the real world.  They mostly slept when they were home.  The computer room they used to inhabit as students now barely felt their presence.  I began to wonder what they were like at work.   They seemed to enjoy what they were doing.  They told me of the problem-solving, the writing and creating, and the endless meetings that filled their typical day at the office.  I realized that I never worked as much.

They would leave early in the morning, desperately fighting off drowsiness.  They work ten hours at the office, while keeping a cheerful mien.  Then they brave two hours of traffic to get home.  If I did not know they were young and healthy, I would take the drooping shoulders and blank faces by which they announced their arrival every night as signs of premature senility or anemia.  I began to worry that they were pushing themselves too hard, and in their haste, losing their capacity for inner joy.

A hundred years ago, Friedrich Nietzsche noted with alarm how this “distinctive vice of the new world” had begun to infect old Europe. “Even now one is ashamed of resting, and prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience.  One thinks with a watch in one’s hand, even as one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market; one lives as if one always ‘might miss out on something’.”

The pursuit of work exhausts us so much, he says, that we lose “the feeling for form itself, the ear and eye for the melody of movements.” When we relax, we often feel entitled to be sloppy in the company of friends and loved ones.  We lose the energy for “esprit in conversation, and for any otium (leisure) at all.”

In fact leisure becomes a matter of schedule.  One waits for the weekend, and most of it is spent either catching up on sleep or desperately trying to feel relaxed.  Nietzsche lamented the fate of the modern slave trapped in the ferocity of daily work.  “How frugal our educated, and uneducated, people have become regarding ‘joy’! How they are becoming increasingly suspicious of all joy!  More and more, work enlists all good conscience on its side; the desire for joy already calls itself a ‘need to recuperate’ and is beginning to be ashamed of itself.”

It may seem like an unwarranted aristocratic indulgence to talk of leisure in the face of our people’s poverty.  But our poverty is as much of the spirit as it is of material necessities.  That we are poor as a country is no excuse to reduce leisure to endless window-shopping at the malls or staying home to watch stupefying television.  Yet leisure has always taken a backseat to economic life in our scale of national priorities.  It is as if our eligibility for happiness may begin only after we have solved the problem of scarcity and paid the national debt.  Look at the sad state of our public parks, libraries, and museums.  Indeed, look at the absence of public parks, libraries and museums, open spaces, promenades, and walking trails.

Not too long ago, the University of the Philippines decided to clean up the wild shrubbery that concealed a mosquito-infested pond called “the lagoon”.  A footpath leading to the lotus-covered pond was put in place, making the entire forested area surrounding it ideal for walking. At once, a public thirsting for quiet sanctuaries in a noisy city discovered a place of solace.  Realizing the new function that the campus was acquiring, the UP took one step further by closing its main streets to vehicular traffic on Sundays so that the whole acacialined university oval may be enjoyed as a public park.  The response from a grateful community has been overwhelming. It has taken so little to create an oasis for spiritual recharging.

My children grew up on this campus, and precisely because it is where they live, they can often be blind to its beauty.  I would not have succeeded in hijacking their precious weekend if it were only for a walk in the lagoon.  I wanted them to feel what it meant to have a break. They ate, they slept, they read, they swam and they flew kites at the beach. They talked in quiet unhurried tones, and they were attentive to one another.  No one was rushing to go back to work that Monday.  For the first time in years, they felt the joy of leisure.


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