What To Do With All that Spare Time? Learning on Your Own
If you are able to rearrange your life to follow a guideline of 4 hours of bread labor, 4 hours of service, and 4 hours of play each day, you may struggle with what to do with your time now that “work” isn’t taking up most of it.
More than a few people identify with their jobs so strongly that an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and lack of meaning sets in as soon as that piece of their lives is removed. This is no surprise, since we live in a culture where we are defined by what we do for work and where we spend most of our waking hours at work. This is one reason many people struggle in retirement, even though retirement is one of the major goals of working – a person’s whole sense of worth, self, and even community is wrapped up in the routine of going to work every day.
When you free yourself from the “daily grind,” how then do you spark an interest in other aspects of life? How do you find the initiative to start your own projects after so many years of being told what to do? In a world where everyone else is so busy at work and we’re not, how do you find ways to gain skills and insight into healthfully and enjoyably interacting with people?
Imagine a woman bears three children who grow up and move away. Much of her identity and purpose in life is centered around being mother to her children, so when they are gone she feels the “empty nest” syndrome really bad. She wants to fill the void of the kids being gone, so she decides to become a foster mother and nurture people that way. It’s a requirement for every foster parent to take some general parenting classes on boundary-setting and nonviolent communication. Not long after she starts the classes, she calls her children in tears to apologize for all the mistakes she made interacting with them. Everyone needs help with parenting skills, but culturally there just isn’t much encouragement to learn how to parent well. People assume that everyone just knows how or that there is nothing to learn. Hardly anyone actually has the wherewithal, much less the time, to go learn about parenting before they have kids.
Why, if you know you will soon be a parent and given the free time, would you not make the effort to learn as much as possible about how to parent? The simple answer is that in our culture, we are unaccustomed to cultivating the desire to learn on our own. This extends beyond parenting into every aspect of life. If you want to plant a garden but know nothing about it, why not talk with a gardener neighbor or volunteer on a nearby farm for a summer? These are easy steps to take, but many people find it hard to take the initiative to follow their heart’s desire. We simply haven’t cultivated the will to change nor the ability to prioritize our own desires and development. This is no surprise: we have been told what to do with most of our time since the age of 5. When we do manage to make space in our lives to nurture our own learning, it is also difficult to deal with feelings of sorrow or guilt for having “wasted” so much time doing what other people told us to do instead of following our heart’s desire and learning what we want to learn.
If all of a sudden the eight-hour work day is cut to four and instead of coming home exhausted you still have some energy left, what do you do? Although you have succeeded in rearranging your time, you may feel empty instead of free. That’s ok. Accept where you are at and be patient with yourself. You don’t have to do anything with your time. Part of the purpose of cutting back the workday is to allow yourself a new understanding of time. You are experiencing true “free” time – your time is yours, and your only purpose to simply be alive. It may be enough at first to “spend” your “spare” time simply relishing the fact that you don’t have to be anywhere or do anything for anyone else. What a gift! Enjoy the moment.
Soon, if you are paying attention, you will likely feel some curiosity or passion ignite within you and begin to pursue learning something new. Maybe it’s as simple as going on long walks, or visiting a favorite childhood fishing spot, or remembering how to fly a kite. The world is full of excitement, wonder, and experience. It just takes a different set of emotional muscles and values to find that joy again.
As your desire emerges, it is helpful to keep an eye toward your true priorities. Is your emerging interest in line with the values shift you are trying to make – away from valuing possessions/power and toward valuing well-being/people? Remember that many hobbies require a high financial investment. If your new interest requires you to go back to working longer hours in order to pay for it, perhaps it’s not really worth pursuing. The cultivation of desire is just like any acquired taste and value system. If we get used to eating fast food every day, then we crave fast food. If we get used to craving possessions every day, then we crave possessions. But if we value people and interaction every day, then we make time for people and interaction.
Some retirees find that their free time quickly fills up with all kinds of things they want to do and places they want to be, and they are busier than they ever were while working! As your desire to learn ignites, you may become so passionate about your new interests that you lose your daily balance. This is ok for a while as you discover something new, but remember that the purpose of the 4x4x4 guideline (bread labor, play, and service) is to create more space for unstructured time as well as time to pursue new activities. Quiet meditation, self-care, and spontaneous interaction/connection with other people and the community of life around you are very important for your health and well-being. If you find you really can’t stop focusing on your “to-do” list, then schedule quiet time or conversation dates on your agenda.