When is a job the best choice for us? When can we instead make leisure the centre of our way of life?
I was eighteen, when I finished high school a semester early. My plan was to spend the next half a year before college practicing music and getting ready for the music degree I was about to embark on. (I ended up changing majors a year later.) My parents were supportive. But I blew it. I wasted month after month with reading useless pop fiction and playing video games and entirely neglecting my music studies. My parents ended up encouraging me to get a job for the remaining summer months, which was the right decision.
Some people are ready for leisure, and some are not. For many of us, a job is as close to virtue as we can come. That’s not the ideal situation, but for many of us it’s just the reality. Of course, for most of us, most of the time, a job is a necessity for financial reasons. Even then, we should ask ourselves whether the job is holding us back from the many virtuous things we could accomplish with a bit more leisure, or whether the job is perhaps the only thing saving us from wasting our hours away on pointless, meaningless, wasteful activities.
One summer during college I was unable to find work, apart from occasional odd jobs. That summer I planned to drill my Greek and Hebrew skills, study ancient architecture and history and geography. Again, it was a bust. The summer months slid by with hardly a glance at the sorts of good habits I was planning to put in place.
But after graduating college, for the first time, I began to experience what it would be like to pursue difficult, worthwhile habits without a job or a degree program demanding it of me. For a few years after college, even while working full time, I was able to devote much of my spare time to reading difficult philosophical books from the history of Western thought. It was extremely challenging at times, but I could see the benefits of it, and I managed to stick with the reading program all the way to my planned conclusion.
More recently, I lost my job soon after Covid was recognized as a pandemic, and now I am a stay at home parent to two little children, one almost three years old and the other not even a year old yet. Ask any stay at home parent with little children and they’ll tell you it’s not leisurely by any means. Still, it has given me some flexibility in my schedule that would not have been as easy to find in a workplace. I’ve been able to focus especially on language-learning and on physical health and fitness. I know that I will probably need to go back to work sooner or later, but I am heartened to realize that it will be for the paycheque, for the income, and not because I would otherwise be wasting my time. Indeed, it’s my hope that whenever I do end up back at work, I might find some way to keep incorporating these good habits into my life. Even if I can’t sustain these specific habits then, though, I know that who I’ve become during this time will be a part of me for the rest of my life.
The key to excelling at leisure, I think, is realizing that there’s so much to learn, so much to excel at, and not so many years in a lifetime for acquiring these skills and and for studying this knowledge. We need to feel the sense of urgency that is justified by the nature of our existence. There’s so much to do, to learn, to become. Once we realize that, it will be clear that we have to start as soon as possible, be consistent in our efforts, and fit these labours into whatever parts of our day can be made available for them.