Work, leisure and taking the time
For most of us, the time for social gathering and face-to-face communication is diminishing. Traditionally, in western cultures at least, Sundays have meant a day of social gathering and recreation. In one way or another, all cultures have this: a time for people to get together, a sacred period in the week. How we choose to organise our time and how we understand its rituals can tell us a lot about the morality and values of any given society.
To reflect on the loss of social time and its values, I turn to the French film director Jacques Tati’s 1958 modern classic, Mon Oncle, which parodies the rapid consumerism and new technologies of his era. The film gives us two accounts of time: the time of technological change and the time of leisure and play. The opening sequence starts with a pack of dogs foraging the streets at a leisurely pace. These “working dogs” are from the old neighbourhoods of Paris. Accompanying them is Dacky the dachshund, who is literally from the other side of the fence – that is, Tati’s modern Paris and his 1950s version of the aspirational classes.
The dogs move through the streets with pleasure and ease, sharing food, pissing on garbage cans, and generally taking their time, but then the film shifts and the dogs cross over to the other side of the fence. Dacky’s world. As they enter, they move faster and faster through the homogeneous zones of newly designed Parisian streets. Dacky is separated from the rest of the pack and heads to his ultra-modern home. As he enters this space-age complex, his owner, Mrs Arpel, is horrified by the muck he’s collected on his body from wandering the streets, and she grabs him by the scruff of the neck. Dacky disappears into the interior world of the Arpels’ opulent monstrosity. The working dogs watch this scene with curiosity through cracks of the Arpels’ exterior gate.
Throughout the film, Tati’s character, Monsieur Hulot, takes over from the dogs – he is the embodiment of a curious onlooker in a world gone mad with technological advances, or rather a world that has lost its sense of human rhythms and relationships. Hulot’s actions are often caught between the expanding world of technology and the old ways that reflect the almost forbidden elements of leisure and work. Tati’s interest in leisure is not the idle leisure of the “bourgeoisie” as he would have seen it; but leisure seen as how long it takes to do things, the social time of connection and relationship.
What Tati yearned for, and what is the subject of this essay, is what is the relationship between leisure and work and how have Sundays got in the way?
A couple of years ago a friend of mine, who is a vet, discussed with great passion how he would not open his veterinary practice on a Sunday. He felt the pressure to do so because of rising rental costs in his suburb, the public demand that he should be available at all times, and the sense of competition from surrounding businesses. But he vehemently believed in social time: that Sundays are meant for rest and being with family and friends.
I was struck by my friend’s position. His attitude made me seriously consider this question of social time, how it is related to our understanding of work and how it intersects with our notions of leisure and play. Now more than ever, we appear to be “workers” in an almost invisible economy that makes social time the time of instantaneous capital flow. This has no borders or boundaries. We might say empires of the past colonised space, but today it is the colonisation and commodification of time that is shaping our lives and experience.
So what if we consider leisure not as a privilege but as a virtue? What if rest and relaxation are as essential to a global economy as any other factor; that leisure is required for a prosperous and sane world? For me, this involves looking at the relationship between leisure and work, and leisure and contemplation. Leisure is often thought of as in opposition to work, but what if we think of leisure in work – or rather how to approach work in a calm way? This idea of work is not goal oriented but it still has purpose; in this scenario the purpose is not the end itself, but the way in which we undertake work. It could be seen as a kind of play.
Let me give you an example of this work and play. One Sunday afternoon, as it so happened, I had the pleasure of watching an Australian kelpie playing ball with her owners in a nearby park. She had a working-dog stance: keen attention to the task at hand. I could imagine her herding sheep just as well. Her focus was on the ball and the game: the skill and pleasure of teasing her owners and fetching the ball. As the ball was thrown into the air, the kelpie jumped up and let out a yelp of ecstasy and excitement. I can only describe this sound as pure joy. Landing back on her feet, she proceeded to retrieve the ball and the game started all over again.
The monk and scholar, David Steindl-Rast, suggests we are simply unable to play playfully unless we learn to work playfully. It might sound frivolous to say “work playfully” but there is something in the dog’s presence and skill, her play and work, that demonstrates the virtues I have in mind. The dog is attentive to her owners, just as they are attentive to her. In these moments of absolute concentration, time expands and shifts. There is an encounter and exchange in its purest form: time is not a matter of its passing or meeting deadlines, but the “nowness” that is experienced.
What does it mean to rethink leisure and work in this fashion? Here I am no longer thinking of “chronological time” – of clocks and calendars or the world of instant messaging and instantaneous information networks – but the older historical sense of the word, that comes from the Greek hora, which means “soul” time. This involves contemplation and leisure just as much as it involves work and play. It involves the gift of time, the period that a task rightly takes. Connected to this soul time is the Greek kairos, which is the time of opportunity and encounter that opens out the possibility of wonder and exchange.
I’d like to share a story about this kairos, and the time I spent with my late father in the final stages of his dementia. Every Sunday I would visit him at his nursing home. This ritual became a significant part of our relationship as my father could no longer recognise who I was. But in taking the time to be with him, I was able to give him the time that it takes to understand the illness. I could learn to be playful and attentive even when he occupied different time zones: for example, when he was no longer my “father” but a young man in the army or an old man in a nursing home. To share his kairos gave us the opportunity for joy and wonder in the midst of the suffering and pain.
Kairos is not driven by external force or measurement, but it does involve the need for ritual and face-to-face encounters. It is a time of contemplation and reverie that opens out a different sense of meaning and purpose in the everyday. Jacques Tati’s dogs and my kelpie friend remind me that working playfully is essential to how we might understand rest and relaxation. In other words, how we might appreciate the need for Sundays and the need to maintain the work and rituals that are important to us.
Leisure is not the privilege of a few who can afford it. It is a virtue that involves the willingness “to give time to what takes time”, and living takes time no matter how much we might try to rush it.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 18, 2014 as "What’s the rush?". Subscribe here.