Taking the time to exist

Work and leisure, deemed opposite, are both caught up in the contemporary socio-economic pressure to be productive; time off, forced into servicing respite or distraction, is a commodified entity. Could a universal right to ‘otium’, the ancient concept of time, free from worldly concerns, create the opportunity to work on oneself through oneself?

Jean-Miguel Pire

Time flies. We are caught in a loop with no respite. Our senses are constantly harassed by an inexhaustible stream of ever more demanding sounds and images that stimulate our desires and fears. Our attention, fragmented across different undertakings, engagements and conversations, explodes into a multitude of incompatible actions. Besides incoherence and frustration, the result is also an unshakeable sensation of being short of time.

Lockdowns during the pandemic exacerbated this feeling, creating an imbalance between work time and leisure time. For some, remote working dramatically increased the overall amount of time spent at work, while others enjoyed long periods of suspended employment and unprecedented amounts of free time.

For the former, not physically commuting to work made the boundary that normally separates professional and private spheres more porous. The ability to work from home creates an illusion of freedom that thrives at the expense of leisure. In fact, time devoted to work has continued to increase, with workers able to complete online tasks at any time of the day or night. Work’s vampirization of time mirrors a change that has been underway for several decades. Widespread digitalization has made work more efficient, but it has also led to the belief that the pace of work can be endlessly accelerated.

Things were very different for those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. The need to organize unexpected leisure time fruitfully was all the more taxing when managed in cramped and crowded accommodation. The proliferation of time off revealed how much we struggle to make our free time productive, to use it as a real opportunity for personal growth, to improve ourselves, to progress, to gain clarity. This confirmed a phenomenon of which we are all aware: as a society, we see leisure time as inferior to work time. It is the time left over once the important things have been dealt with – above all once our income has been secured.

Seen as optional, secondary, superfluous time, leisure is only valued if it is entertaining, if it distracts us from ourselves, if it is a simple rest allowing us to recover our strength so we can get back to work. In its current form, therefore, leisure is hardly up to the task of accommodating our existential concerns.

Yet the desire to find the meaning in our lives was reenforced during the pandemic. Long, anxious hours were given to understanding events and what they meant for us. But rather than putting free time to good use and learning, studying, gaining skills and clarity, despondency led many to distracting activities. The aim was above all to forget what was happening, to somehow escape a demoralizing prospect. No doubt some people did manage to plan their unexpected leisure time carefully and even sometimes accomplish projects that would be unthinkable in normal times. But the majority found it impossible to organize their leisure as productively as work. Leisure, culturally equated with pleasure, relaxation and forgetfulness, does not seem to accommodate the effort needed to build autonomy….