Everywhere I look I see leisure. Entertainment: television, advertisements, movies, food; a mass of people in search of release. It has come to dominate our lives, and the pursuit of leisure crowds out all other needs. Thoughts to improving ourselves, to devoting time to higher, better pursuits, are no longer prominent; no, our culture nowadays is all about seeking pleasure and fun, and forgetting those moral aims our ancestors so valiantly pursued.
I am taking an early American Literature class, and thus far we have read primarily the writings of the early Puritan settlers and colonists. We started with the earliest Indian creation stories and then worked through the accounts of the early conquistadors and settlers—from Columbus to Bradford and Edwards—to the later colonists, like Ben Franklin and the Adams. It’s all been very interesting from a historical perspective, but what has stuck out to me from the very beginning is this: the commitment to God and the abstinence from worldly pleasures.
These people were so vigilant! So binded and constrained by rules, all for the sake of God’s grace. All works, good and bad, were attributed to God. They wanted to be a “Model of Christian Charity,” and so they tried their utmost at all times to be sinless: to rise early and work hard, avoid all luxury, be kind, and always keep God in their mind. Satisfaction was only achieved through adhering to rules.
I was especially shocked upon reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography, which was full of details about his journey to achieve “Moral Perfection.” Though I’m not sure he was doing this for religious reasons so much as personal ones, the effort he supposedly put into it was outstanding. He lists all of the virtues, from Temperance to Frugality to Humility, and proceeds to make a daily chart recording his success in showing each virtue.
This is starting to feel more like a book report than a blog…anyway, the point of all that was to explain my amazement at the virtuosity of our ancestors, but especially at how much of that has been lost. The pursuit of Moral Perfection would be laughed at today, I think. Sure, people want to better themselves, but if it comes between that and Netflix, you can be sure they’ll choose the latter. Poor Richard’s Almanac (Franklin) is full of wise advice regarding leisure, such as: “Be ashamed to catch yourself idle,” and “We are taxed twice as much by our idleness, three times as much by our pride, and four times as much by our folly” (than by regular, monetary taxes).
If you were to suggest to someone that perhaps they’re spending a little too much time idle—watching TV, sleeping, gossiping and whatnot—they’d probably agree with you, but in a laughing, careless sort of way. We are so attached to our worldly pleasures that the thought of giving them up is just that: laughable. Very few people would ever seriously consider substituting their precious leisure time for a more productive use.
I am in no way separate from this. Really, most of us Americans work so hard all the time that when we finally get some free time, we are apt to spend it being as lazy as possible. Can you blame us? I’m not sure, but I do think our leisure has come to be excessive. In college, it seems that everything is about getting your work done as quickly as possible so that you can go goof off, sleep, or party. Last year, I was a part of this, but lately, I find myself growing frustrated as my thirst to be educated and wise grows exponentially each day. I don’t find myself wanting to waste time the way I used to…why watch TV when there are so many books to be read, so much knowledge to be acquired?
One of the biggest reasons for this excess of leisure is probably our loss of attention due to technology. What with smartphones and computers and iPads, information is thrown at us in bite-sized pieces, so that we no longer have the attention span required to read a good book or an article longer than a page. Besides my fellow English majors, none of my friends read books…they all admit that “they should,” but that they just don’t have the time. Is that it? Or do they just not have the attention span? It’s too shameful for them to admit, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. We’re simply not capable of maintaining our focus dedicatedly enough to delve into what we really need: those dense yet rewarding and incredibly powerful works.
If our Puritan ancestors could’ve peered into the future, they would have thought society had been completely overtaken by the devil.
I think that what a lot of people are missing in life is the knowledge that you can’t have happiness without hard work and diligence. Immediate gratification is exactly that: something that feels good only in the moment. But when you abstain from too much leisure, and instead dedicate yourself to knowledge, and hard work, and your own values, you are sure to lead a much more productive and satisfying life. Think how much more we could be doing if we would only impose a few more rules on ourselves, just like Ben Franklin!
I am trying my best to pursue this, and I hope you will too. No one’s perfect, but I do find it sad that we aren’t even trying to be. Thanks for reading! :)