When I tell my students that the whole purpose of their education is to “move the conversation forward”, or “push the envelope”, or that they should not “operate on an inherited belief system” but know why they believe what they do, what I’m asking them to do is to add value to their lives. Easier said than done. It wasn’t too long ago that I was an apathetic youngin’ wandering through life with my head up my arse, oblivious to the world and my place in it. So when I try to connect to the youth of today, I get their indifference and questioning of my underlying emphases on why any of “this” matters. When I was in college, I was really there for the party, but I knew I was supposed to be there to get a job. Well, both are really stupid ways to go about it. Yes, we should all “party” – regardless of our age or station in life, but it should never be the sole focus. It took me a loooong time to figure that out. I think I had a bunch of brain rust that needed to be power-sanded off or something. But we shouldn’t be in college solely to get a job either. If that’s the case, then you have just about admitted and accepted that your career is what is most important and what will define you going forward. I’m okay with getting immersed in your work and having it be a positive reflection of your sense of self. But the moment it consumes you, you’ve lost touch with life. As the saying goes, no one on their deathbed ever wished they had worked more hours.
So how does someone “add value” to their life then? Good question. Thanks for asking. Where I like to start is two concepts: leisure and recreation. To many, these terms are interchangeable; they mean the same thing. But that is inaccurate. Recreation is an activity; it can be sought out by an individual or provided by an organization. Its intent is to fill a need or want, and its lasting effect is often ephemeral. The youth baseball league I played in for one year in grade school was a recreational activity; it had no lasting impact on my life. The woodworking 101 class I took at the local industrial co-op a few weeks ago was a recreational activity. Besides the remedial cutting board I took home after two hours, it also had no lasting impact on my life (other than I now cut vegetables on a piece of wood that looks like I found it in the garbage). What leisure is, and where value is added, is when a mere recreational activity transcends something that fills time and space. This isn’t to say that recreation can’t be fun; of course it can – that’s the primary reason we engage in extracurricular activities. And it is not to say that recreation cannot be leisure; it is simply that the transition from recreation to leisure is a little more difficult and a lot less common. So what is leisure then? Let me tell you.
Leisure, going back to Aristotle, is a state of being. Often mistakenly referred to as a state of mind – this is not adequate enough – leisure is something that becomes interwoven into your personal tapestry. A leisure activity becomes the vehicle for personal and communal growth, something you commit yourself to over time. It has edifying properties, it has reflective properties, and it has connective tissue, allowing you to form social networks with others who find value in the same activity. So leisure could have been that one year of baseball or that evening in the woodshop. Those instances certainly are for some people, just not for me, not during that year or that night, respectively. Leisure can be reading, yoga, community service, singing in an acapella group, activism, or cycling – and so much more. But for those activities to be transcendent and to become leisure, not only must it positively affect the individual for the better (and this is entirely subjective as drug use or vandalism could apply by some folks’ definitions, but this is a topic for another day…), but it also must add to the greater good as well.
An activity that is solely done for personal gain and with intention not to benefit the collective cannot truly be leisure; the essence of leisure is growth and community. This is not to say that you cannot find leisure on your own, in solitude, or without visceral interactions with others, but that if it doesn’t involve an existential shift in the direction of meta-level understanding and orientation towards society, then it cannot be leisure. It is solely an activity you do by yourself. If it changes you in some way for the better, good. But the next step is for there to be some residual or tangential effect on society. So those who read books on history and political science but do so in the comfy confines of their personal home libraries may seem disconnected from others, but in reality they are refining themselves and educating themselves which indirectly betters the world. The same is true about those who do yoga at home alone. By creating the time and space to meditate, by keeping your body in a healthy condition, and by reflecting on your daily interactions, frustrations, challenges and personal commitments, you are making yourself a better person. This makes you a better member of society. This can be leisure – if it becomes a vital aspect of your being.
So when I try to impress upon my students to add value to their lives, what I hope to do is get them to think – about who they are, where they came from, what they’re doing and why they think any of “this” matters. I want them to think about it from the perspective of others – how might those they’ve never met view their paradigms, their actions and their priorities? I ask my students if they’re just coasting through life on a set of assumptions they’ve picked up over the years, oblivious to why they use them as their default settings. I ask them how often they really, truly challenge what it is they believe. Have they ever admitted they were wrong, changed their philosophy, or changed their lives? Or does our fast-paced society prevent them from doing so because that is what we teach our young – to do as mommy and daddy and teacher and minister say – respect your elders, even if they don’t know what the F#@$ they’re talking about? As David Foster Wallace once said, life is really all about perspective. You get to choose what matters and what doesn’t. So what will you choose?
Leisure is about committing yourself to something because it will make you a better person which will directly affect society. Leisure is the opportunity to knock down barriers and find common ground. Adding value is all about taking stock of what matters in your life and sorting out the garbage, only retaining what is truly worthwhile. From there you build on a much firmer foundation and create avenues for growth and conduits to other people, shrinking the world, making it a better place. There is no easy fix. There is no first step. There are a collection of first steps that need to be coordinated. To do that requires an investment and an evaluation; it requires an awareness beyond your head, as Matthew Crawford would say. There’s a whole world out there. Will you find it?