Work, leisure, and ‘otium’

walkers-907574_1280.jpgThis is part of a series about coronavirus and its effect on people with disability. 

The coronavirus is forcing everyone to do some big thinking about the meaning of life. Yes, there are risk factors – like age, and pre-existing conditions – that make some people more likely to suffer from the virus than others. But we still don’t know exactly why some people are vulnerable while others just dismiss the virus as a bad cold. Why is it that most children are exempt from its suffering but their grandparents are not? We just don’t know.

The random nature of the virus means that we all regard it as particularly dangerous and take appropriate precautions to do all we can to avoid catching COVID-19. In particular, office-workers aren’t going into their workspaces. The cubicles are empty as people work from home. Because no one is supervising our every moment, it means that we can change the way we spend our time.

Yesterday afternoon, just after 4, I wentfor a walk in the Canberra wetlands, This is a part of Canberra I don’t normally go to; particularly with my wife during ‘work time’. We were amazed to see people everywhere – some walking earnestly, others listening to podcasts as they strolled; some panting, and a few others (like us) just wandering gently along the paths, not really concerned about how quickly we arrived back at our final destination.

Were we at work? No, certainly not! Leisure? Well, yes, but it was more of a break as we both went back to our computers later. So what, exactly, were we doing?

A Roman would have known exactly how we were spending our time, and what’s more they had a word for it too. Otium.

Its time spent in between business (negotium) and exercise (exercitium) or practice. It can be qualified: otiosum (idle and wasteful) or privatum (personal and private pleasure), but was never simply idleness. Think of it as spending time productively; but without productivity. Thinking; not resting. Engaged in contemplation; not idle.

Shortly afterwards, restored and invigorated, we returned to our ‘real’ work.

It’s difficult to cram meaning into our lives if we insist on dividing them, overly simplistically, into ‘work’ and ‘play’. That leaves no space, for example, for contemplation. It implies two things – that time not spent ‘working’ is, by definition, not productive and that the rest of life is ‘leisure’. The problem with this dichotomy, though, is that it just doesn’t work.

It’s important to reclaim those periods where we spend our time, effectively, exactly as we choose. These are the moments that make our life worth living; the periods that give us the space to breathe and decide what’s really important.

This time, whether it’s spent walking and talking, or dedicated to thinking and quiet contemplation, is far more important than work, exercise, or even (just) pleasure.

As Australia begins to look at returning to ‘normal’ it’s important that we don’t just drift back to normal ways of thinking.

One way to avoid that is by spending our time wisely. Don’t feel trapped into doing things the way others want you to. If you want to think, and you believe it’s productive, carve out the space to allow yourself to do exactly that.

This piece was originally inspired by this piece from the Economist’s 1843 magazine, which has a much deeper consideration of how we spend our time. 






Nic Stuart

Nicholas Stuart is an author (Kevin Rudd, an unauthorised political biography; What Goes Up, behind the 2007 election; Kevin Rudd, 2007 - 2011) and columnist with the Canberra Times. He was the ABC's Indochina Correspondent when he suffered a significant head injury in a car crash in Bangkok.

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