Optimisation, Sabbath and the Commodification of Leisure
Being in social isolation leaves few genuine joys, so when you learn of a silver lining, it’s all too tempting to grab hold. Like the fact that, despite initial reservations, this lockdown is actually a government-mandated retreat of sorts, during which you can become your very best self.
Armed with the rare gift of more time, you can finally read those 87 books on your Goodreads list and learn how to make home-made pasta. You can teach yourself, French, write that novel, Marie Kondo every room and get that inbox to zero. Hundreds of podcasts will be listened to, workouts virtually followed, and once this is over your life will be a paragon of pandemic-induced perfection
As it transpires, one can escape many things during a National lockdown (commutes, pointless annoying colleagues, needless shopping, having to go to the gym), but hustle culture is not one of them. Hustle culture is essentially ‘the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed towards profit and self-improvement’, as Taylor Lorenz so excellently put it.
In capitalist society time is money. Therefore, when time has been spent, one must have something of value to show for it, whether that’s work or modern leisure which is really just work packaged as ‘self-care’.
Add the catalyst of Instagram to the mix and you have a whole new level of insecurity and pressure to be constantly doing all the things. We live in the generation terrified of mediocrity. To be boring is the deepest insult, so we strive to be better, to be the best, and then to be captured appearing effortlessly so on social media.
Yet, slow down the machine and stick everyone in their homes and the truth becomes pretty hard to miss; we’ve reached a point where solitude and leisure not only have no place but are somewhat unbearable to endure.
Suddenly faced with an extra lump sum of hours to spend at home, we are filled with excessive anxiety which has us scrambling for ways to commoditize and optimise. How can we get the most bang for our buck? How can we earn and optimise this time?
In short, how can we ‘earn’ what we’ve already been given.
In the face of these questions and my own inability to do something simply for the pleasure of it, the word that comes to mind is an ancient Hebrew one; שַׁבָּת Or in English, Sabbath.
Now, don’t let any religious baggage put you off, stay with me.
Commencing on Friday evening and concluding Saturday night, Sabbath is a day people — traditionally Jews — put aside for rest and worship. It’s 24 hours free from work, labour or errands. It’s a day without shopping, intense exercise, movies or social media. And depending on how Orthodox you are, internet, driving and washing are off the list too.
For the religious, Sabbath is a physical expression of trust in their God and a reminder that their value isn’t dictated by their work and that God’s love can’t be earnt through effort.
But, on a basic physical level, it’s also a hugely beneficial time of rest, healing and resistance.
See, our world that is run by what Jenny Odell calls ‘the attention economy’, one of constant transactions, whether it’s through money when we needlessly shop, or time when we endlessly scroll.
So, it stands to reason that, in this climate, one of the most radical things one can do is to look around, to take in the demands and imperatives being shouted from our screens and just say ‘no’. Even for as little as one day a week.
The roots may be religious, but on a secular level, Sabbath directly counters the inveterate idea that leisure time must be earnt, lest it be lazy or pointless.
In ‘The pattern of leisure in Contemporary American Culture’, Margaret Mead explains how, from childhood, we are taught that the pleasure of leisure has an equivalent pain that must be suffered prior, in the form of education or work.
“Unearned leisure is something which will have to be paid for later. It comes under the heading of vice — where the pleasure comes first and the pain afterwards — instead of virtue where the pain or work precedes the reward.” Either way, you better not kick back or relax without having slaved away at a building site or before a computer screen.
Yet, for those who struggle with conflating the absence of ‘achievement’ or ‘striving’ with laziness, consider this quote from Gilles Deleuze, “…we’re riddled with pointless talk, insane quantities of words and images…it’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say”
The timely point Deleuze makes is that ‘nothing’ isn’t a waste of time or a consequence of laziness but an essential part of cultivating meaningful thoughts and actions. Yet, the fact this was written in 1985 perhaps shows how little progress we’ve made towards accepting this.
All that to say, this time, while unprecedented, is unique. And while it’s beyond tempting to capitalise and optimise, to fill those new windows of time with Deleuze’s pointless talk and countless images via a smartphone screen or Netflix series, attempt to optimize every facet of my life, I think maybe I should resist. To rest, properly, allow the cogs in an overly anxious head to actually slow for a moment and be where I am; in my home, with my family, in my suburb.
To go for a walk, not to burn sweat but take in the still-warm summer afternoons and spend my lunch breaks doing crosswords with my mother. To cut up magazine pages and decorate my pinboard or make a watercolour painting or stare at the bloody ceiling for 20 minutes because I can. As cliche as it sounds, actually, listen to the birds in the morning. Allow myself to get thoroughly totally bored and work the frighteningly weak muscle that is my imagination for respite, instead of cheating with an easy screen.
To resist, until the curve flattens and the doors of the world open back up, and hopefully, long after.